Life Stories #11: Alyssa Harad

Life Stories: Alyssa Harad

In this installment of Life Stories, a Beatrice podcast series of interviews with memoirists about their lives and the art of memoir writing, Alyssa Harad discusses Coming to My Senses, the story of how she developed a love for perfume in her mid-30s and the personal transformation that came with it. Interestingly, as she reveals in the interview, she didn’t set out to write a memoir at first—the original plan was that she’d be editing an anthology of some of her favorite writing from the various perfume fan blogs that fueled her own passion for scents. For various reasons, that project didn’t pan out, but the responses to her own writing in the proposal was encouraging enough that she began to tell her own story…

One of the many interesting aspects to this memoir is the education Harad goes through on her path to becoming a perfume connoisseur—it reminded me in some ways of a conversation I’d had a few years back with Barry Smith, the editor of a collection of essays about wine and philosophy. We’d talked about sense memories, and the ability to separate out multiple “notes” from a sensory experience, and the capacity of language to represent that experience and its components—all of which is relevant to our ability to describe what we experience when we smell a particular perfume. And then there’s the question of how we cultivate our ability to perceive and describe such experiences; as Harad writes, when she first started proffering scents for her husband to sample, they either smelled like vanilla (which he liked) or powder (which he didn’t). And I’ll confess that I’m not quite so much better…although, with a little help from Mrs. Beatrice, I am learning.

(Mrs. Beatrice, by the way, was very impressed with Harad’s mental catalogue of perfumes; she’d given me a few favorite notes to mention, and Harad very quickly came up with matching scents—at least one of which, when found at a store the next day, was judged as excellent indeed.)

Listen to Life Stories #11: Alyssa Harad (MP3 file); or download the file by right-clicking (Mac users, option-click).

30 July 2012 | life stories |

Linda Pastan, “Q and A”

Linda Pastan
photo: Margaretta K. Mitchell

I thought I couldn’t be surprised:
“Do you write on a computer?” someone
asks, and “Who are your favorite poets?”
and “How much do you revise?”

But when the very young woman
in the fourth row lifted her head
and without irony inquired:
“Did you write

your Emily Dickinson poem
because you like her work,
or did you know her personally?”
I entered another territory.

“Do I really look that old?”
I wanted to reply, or “Don’t
they teach you anything?”
or “What did you just say?”

The laughter that engulfed
the room was partly nervous,
partly simple hilarity.
I won’t forget

that little school, tucked
in a lovely pocket of the South,
or that girl whose face
was slowly reddening.

Surprise, like love, can catch
our better selves unawares.
“I’ve visited her house,” I said.
“I may have met her in my dreams.”

Traveling Light is the thirteenth collection of Linda Pastan’s poems. “Ash” appeared in The Atlantic, while “The Burglary” was published in The New Yorker. The New Republic published “Years After the Garden,” and The Paris Review published “Eve on Her Deathbed.” Nimrod published “Counting Backwards,” but it’s available online through the Poetry Foundation’s website, which also hosts “On the Steps of the Jefferson Memorial” (first published in Prairie Schooner).

Plus, you can hear Pastan read “Acorns” at Slate.

26 July 2012 | poetry |

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