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Chance and Error Are Friends to Sadie Dupuis’ Writing Process

When asked about my (deep, profound) fan love of Sadie Dupuis, it can be hard to know where to begin. From her musical projects Speedy Ortiz and sad13, to her sly and sparkling poetry, Sadie Dupuis is one of the most invigorating and original creators working today, so I joke that she’s one of those people who is simply too good at too many things. Leave some genius for the rest of us, Sadie!

But my dumb little joke belies the deep care and generosity at the heart of Dupuis’ oeuvre. Her latest collection of poems, Cry Perfume (out now from Black Ocean), is a powerful collision of recollection and reaction. It ranges from the ways that technology has reshaped the music industry, to the backstage realities of performing life, to the grief and galvanization that comes from losing loved ones to overdoses, to the ways that our memories can open doors into our futures if we are brave and gentle enough to make positive change. What’s the opposite of a sophomore slump? On the heels of her glittering first collection Mouthguard, Cry Perfume is a triumph.

For this conversation, lightning struck twice: I caught up with Sadie while she was on the road book-touring with her friend Michael DeForge (whose beautiful book Birds of Maine is out now from Drawn & Quarterly), chatting about poetry and perfume. Little did I know that, flying homeward a few days later, I’d be in Cleveland in time to attend her last tour stop and continue IRL our conversation about Veronica Mars, harm reduction, and comedic artistry!

This conversation has been edited for clarity.

Yash: The collection is collected into five sections, each named for a compound phrase containing the name of a color (“Blue Hour”, “Red Arsenic” etc.). How did you arrive at this structure, and how would you trace the collection’s trajectory from each color-section to the next?

Sadie: The poems in my last book, Mouthguard, received a lot of feedback as they were in progress — through workshops, gauging reactions at live readings, through friends and my editors at Gramma. It was valuable to consider many other readers while still writing, but I wanted to try something new on my next collection. So I wrote Cry Perfume in more of a vacuum, typically busting out a poem a day on different stretches of touring between 2016-2020. As lockdown began, I realized I had a ton of poems that had barely been through an editing process. I was able to identify certain themes I’d returned to — grief, music work, the encroachment of tech, harm reduction — and revise with those ideas in mind. And literal isolation did lend itself to editing in solo mode!

Oh absolutely, I can imagine. 

When I finally shared the in-progress manuscript with some friends, I got essential feedback from Dorothea Lasky, who basically told me — I’m paraphrasing — that I’d frontloaded too many quippy poems and then had too many long bummer poems feeding into one another. She suggested I write down every theme I observed in each poem and try to section according to those themes. My apartment was a mess of papers scribbled over incoherently, but I settled on “death, sound, mirrors, euphoria, and night.” Which aren’t very fun section titles! With the collection named Cry Perfume, finding perfumes that correlated to those themes seemed a more fitting route. A couple perfume head friends pointed me toward fragrance blogs, which I perused for a few weeks. I flagged (and in some cases slightly modified or mistranslated) names of perfumes that evoked the section’s major theme. A lot of perfumes happen to mention colors, and I liked the way both scents and colors summon emotion well. (Plus I am usually always wearing a ton of loud colors at once, and I liked that my book could, too.)

Oh my gosh, perfume names! L’heur Bleu! What a perfect connection. We see so many books that draw on visual art, and smell feels like an often underutilized sensory mine. What are some other ways that fragrance (as symbol, as image, whatever) informed this collection? 

Yeah. I have a funny relationship to smell in that I had broken my nose a couple times as a kid, and my septum was so severely deviated that my nasal pathways were almost entirely occluded until I had surgery a few years ago. I had no sense of smell until around 2018. When I started, I had been able to smell things as a kid and I could smell things very faintly, but on tour, if everybody else was like, “Oh God, it smells awful in here,” I would have no idea what they were talking about (which is a blessing in many ways).

I think for many people, smell is really tied up in memory. People will recall a cream that their grandmother used and that will evoke a flood of memories. For a book that is so much about grieving and memory, I liked being able to evoke this other sense that is so often strongly correlated to memory and the past. Even though scent is not the sense that I’m relying on most of the time (I’m very sight oriented or sound oriented), I like being able to weave it in this way with perfume titles, which are so dramatic and evocative, and in this case, colorful.

Sadie Dupuis on tour for Cry Perfume, sitting on stage with two other performers

Yeah, especially for a sense that is so far removed from language. I think with sound, we have speech and with sight we have texts, but with smell there is so much less connection to language. I thought that was a really, really cool leap.

After those thematic ways I’d oriented the book, I was like, “I can think of a better way to talk about night, to talk about mirrors, to talk about loss.” Perfumes just often have quite dark or sad sounding names, because they are playing off a spectrum of feelings and memories. It was perfect to be able to go through these blogs and mine them for names that felt right.

In “Fuck No To All That” you begin with this couplet: “I’m not adventurous in my work today./ I’m not diving into the skin of horrors.” Elsewhere, you say “I can’t write memoir, I’m scared/ the men in my life will see themselves.” I loved these moments! For such an emotionally rigorous and reflective collection, this is an interesting deviation from confession. How do you transform biographical material into this collection to “transcend time and place”?

My artistic impulses tend toward misusing the creative process like therapy — and with much of this book centered around grief, oops I did it again! Having to explain my projects after they’re released can be retraumatizing, but I just don’t learn my lesson since writing is tightly woven into how I make sense of my world. Writing more broadly about the communities of which I’m part, it’s impossible to erase empathy and care from my work (or anger and derision) if those feelings are tied into the events I’m recalling. But the experience of losing friends to overdose — a preventable death that U.S. drug policy exacerbates — isn’t unique to me. And the experience of an arts worker lamenting exploitation in their industry, especially when tech is involved, isn’t unique to me or to music. So my presumption is that those personal feelings do transcend my personal history.

The “I can’t write memoir” poem you mention came out of my work teaching writing. On maybe three different occasions I had students imply to me they felt they could not broach a topic or genre because men in their lives would take that writing personally, which would put these students’ wellbeing at risk. I guess I wrote that one from a place of mourning. However many years ago, writing songs and poems helped me understand I was in an abusive relationship, and helped me to leave it. It infuriated me on these students’ behalves that they could not even feel safe working through their feelings privately in writing.

That’s heartbreaking. When your craft has offered you doors out of tragedy and harm, it’s devastating to see those doors shut on others like your students. Are there other moments or ways that your teaching has informed this collection?

When I was teaching full time, I think it was really informative for me as a writer. I would always have my students share with me and with one another things that they were excited about. We would do a lot of “here’s a Tumblr I love, we’re going to look at it as a class for ten minutes.” I think I like to pull from so many corners of media and entertainment. My students were really inspiring to me, in that you’re never more excited about checking out the things around you than you are when you’re 18. In that way, they were incredibly wonderful to work with and work alongside.

Especially with poetry workshops, I find that a lot of students (especially in that last-high-school-early-college age group I’m describing) only have experienced poetry as it was taught to them in high school. I didn’t have a particularly wonderful experience with poetry in high school. I thought I probably hated poetry based on the way it was taught, which was to analyze every single line in one specific way. “There’s one meaning you’re meant to derive from it. Write an essay on that for a score.”

It’s funny, on this tour with Michael, I’ve had a couple people come up to me telling me that they’d never bought a poetry book before this reading because they only had that one kind of experience with it. Stepping away from that very formal approach to literary criticism or analysis has made me a lot more excited about writing and reading. I like to read things! I’m not a Jungian, but I like to read things and let them watch over me and see what sticks out! I’m not doing a close analysis of every single line, but then I can revisit and find new things the next time.

It’s not a passive activity, but this kind of reading feels more like pure enjoyment of an art form in the way that I would watch TV or walk through a gallery. It’s been really fun to work with students who are coming to poetry by way of excitement and enjoyment for the first time after the very formal only-looking-at-a-certain-kind-of-canon structure. I feel like that is always really rejuvenating for me as a reader, just seeing students get excited about writing and trying out new forms and not feeling like they’re beholden to analysis.

That’s so true — I think a lot about the Billy Collins poem “Introduction to Poetry”. So often, we’re taught a mode of reading in school that isn’t always a resonant or realistic way to engage with art.

Yeah, but some people don’t realize that. Some of the people coming up to me are probably closer to my age. I’m 34, and they just never went back to poetry because the school system didn’t inspire them to. I think it’s always very exciting to witness people experiencing poetry in that way for the first time, whether they’re young or have had a couple decades away from reading poetry.

Yeah, that’s really beautiful. And getting to return poetry to people after it has been so thoroughly rung out by conventional education is really, really rewarding. That sounds like a really beautiful process.

I’ve had a couple people who are like, “Who are you reading?” And I’ll get to write to them, in my dedication, like, “Check out Morgan Parker!”

Several readers have commented on your playfulness with language; it brought to mind Patricia Lockwood’s idea of being struck by “pun lightning” at the moment that some play on words occurs to you. What kinds of words and slippages of meaning strike you with lightning?

Chance and error are friends to my process, whether that’s in recording music or in writing poems. If I hit a “wrong” note while composing, that often becomes my favorite moment in the song. I used a hodgepodge of writing methods for Cry Perfume, since I was traveling, and if any of them produce a glitch in my intention, I go with it. My handwriting is atrocious and if something I scrawled is ambiguously readable, I’ll opt for the weirder word choice when I’m transcribing. If I did some voice-to-text to write a poem, I won’t fix the misinterpretation. And my fingernails are very long for guitar-playing purposes, which makes chaos out of typing on the phone — autocorrect is a really good co-writer! Since the editing process was so far removed from the initial writing, I can’t remember what’s “mistake” and what’s intentional, which makes it fun for me as an editor, working to make new meaning when the first draft was in many cases a few years ago.

“A glitch in my intention”! I love that idea, that’s such an interesting way of introducing chance into such thoughtful work. (And I love the idea of autocorrect as cowriter!)

As far as the stuff that happens on purpose on purpose… I feel pretty governed by my ear for “music” within poetry and am always chasing that high of syllabic rhythm and words that feel nice to say out loud. That’s annoyingly vague, but it’s more intuitive for me than an explicit set of rules — more akin to noise music or making abstract visuals than it is, like, pop songwriting.

My turn for some pun lightning, because couldn’t “noise music” just be another name for poetry? I would not immediately have connected noise as a genre or a practice to poetry until you mentioned it! Are you a ‘poetry is meant to be read out loud’ kind of writer? Do you read your poems out loud to yourself? Obviously, you’re reading them out loud now on tour, but I’m so curious about how sound filters in for you and how you see sound working in poetry.

Yeah, I do read them out loud to myself, but it’s a different voice, you know what I mean? I’m mumbling through them to myself to make sure I didn’t fuck something up or that it won’t be really annoying for me to read it out loud in two years. For the last book, I had read all those poems out loud a million times because I was doing readings all the time, and I had been able to edit them from that; on the other hand, this book’s editing process was so entirely in the pandemic that I really hadn’t read these poems out loud. That performance aspect just wasn’t available to me during that time, and I had this bleak feeling like, “Well, I’ll never tour again.” It’s been really fun learning them in this new way by reading them aloud on this tour every night. And I’ve been trying to read totally different poems each time, which has been fun.

But overall, I do feel like the sonic component, even if it’s just represented in my head, is a big part of it for me. That’s not dissimilar from how I work on music. I often get into trouble in the arranging process because I’ll put so many layers in there that would be impossible to replicate live or I’ll put production moves in that can’t happen live because I’m really a headphones-listening-to-records-at-home-first person. It’s not dissimilar for poetry. The number one thing I’m thinking about is the experience of sitting at home with a book and then the book tour is the fun chance to try things out in a different way.

Around the time that I was first doing readings, I was starting to go to more high-concept noise shows where people are crawling around on the ground wearing masks or putting contact mics on a drill. I feel like in my ideal world, there should be more crossover between those audiences with the poetry world, because I feel like poets are doing similar things. I feel like I know a lot of poets who are very interested in that sort of high concept noise performance stuff, but it can be a really tricky thing getting musicians of any genre out to poetry readings. It kind of cracks me up — like, “you guys can sit through an hour of people pitch shifting and delaying their screaming sounds and you can’t hear 10 minutes of a poem!”

I also would love to see poetry readings given the production and special effects of musical performance. Like, where are my poetry arena shows with all the big lights and pyrotechnics?

I do always think that I want to bring props into my readings. I had this idea on the last book. I was like, “I’m going to do a tea party every single night. I’m going to bring a little table and I’m going to have a frilly tablecloth. I’m going to get a teapot just for this and I’m going to pour little cups of tea as I read.” It doesn’t happen, but in my mind I sort of have the idea of what I would like to happen during the reading. I did bring a bingo ball on tour this time, because I thought I could pick poems out to read that way, but I wound up relying on other methods of randomness, a lot of polling my friends who are at the readings for numbers. Michael was rolling dice for me to pick some poems at some point.

Now that I’ve kind of read through all the poems, I’m relying on that a little bit less and can kind of tailor what I’m doing to what I feel is the mood of the city, if that makes sense. I’m like, “All right, I know what I have to do here.” I have been having the audience pick a number one to five at the end of every reading and I’ll go to one of the sections based on what they say and read a couple things from the top of it, which has been fun. I like letting people feel like they have… I’m not huge on participatory elements in music performance, but I feel like just saying, “Give me a number,” lets people feel like they have some agency in the reading in a way that is low stakes for me, as the person who has to read the stuff.

Which is such a fascinating way of reintroducing chance — a lot like how you mention using autocorrect as a co-writer!

Yeah. I feel like that can make things really feel fun for me where they might otherwise feel… It can add a levity to reading, especially a book that at points can be kind of heavy.

Yeah, that levity you mention is actually such a perfect segue to my next question. There’s this magnificent stanza where you conjure “this imaginary/ feminist pro-harm/ reduction sex/ worker advocate cop/ in this small/ town crime procedural”. You’re clearly having fun with the enjambment on this one! How do you combine humor with deeply-and-sincerely-held principles (around social justice, harm reduction, and community organizing, etc)  in your poems?

I’ve always used humor as a coping mechanism and deflection tool, in my personal life and in my written work. I can’t easily access an earnest tone of voice without feeling wrong, even when I wholly believe the things I’m describing or defending. But when dealing with and working around some of those topics you named — the ones I can’t stop writing about as they occupy so much of my thinking — I would find it crucial either way to latch onto moments of fun and funniness so I don’t burn out. Plus it’s gratifying, reading poems about topics that might otherwise feel heavy, to get a few laughs from and with an audience. And a lot of my favorite poets are experts at striking that balance between funny and devastating. David Berman is one I’m always citing.

I can absolutely relate to earnestness feeling difficult to access. I find humor helps me look at painful or profound things a bit more in-the-eye without getting frozen in some Medusa effect! It’s ironic, too, when so much issues-based or “activist” poetry is, if anything, overearnest. What do you think writers have to learn from humor?

We did a reading in Pittsburgh at a comedy club — it was sponsored by a great bookstore called The White Whale and they did it at this comedy club called Bottle Rocket. The audience was incredible! So often with poetry, people are afraid to laugh or they think that it has to be this high-minded thing. The comedy club audience was laughing at the parts that were funny, and sometimes the parts that are funny are woven with the parts that are the most fucked up in terms of the processing grief and processing what the fuck is happening in this world. I found that reading wonderful!

Dorothea Lasky is someone who was really inspiring to me when I was figuring out what I’d like to do in poetry. She’s just so funny, even when she’s describing something that’s just awful. I think that’s how she’s able to find her way in. CAConrad is also like that, but the person I’m about to cite is Mark Leidner, who I met when I was living in Western Mass. He would go to open mic standup nights and just read his poems there and they were… He would always be the best person at the comedy night! It was a really awesome way to get to hearjust a difference in audience perception, because they’re not looking at how it’s formatted on a page. They don’t even know he’s reading a poem. For them, it’s a conceptual joke performance and who’s to say poetry can’t be that, too? I think seeing how his poems could work in that setting really inspired me to inject some of that into my work and not always be going for the highfalutin Sylvia Plath worship.

“Who are you? That’s my favorite question/ When it’s said in awe/ When I’ve escaped or when I’m caught” has really stuck with me. It builds on an earlier phrase, where you say “The more you perform / the quieter you become” and it feels like such a twist on Winnicott’s saying that “it is a joy to be hidden and a disaster not to be found.” How does your poet-self escape from or catch your musical self? How do these two creative/performing identities coexist or inform each other?

The same concerns and influences impact both my songwriting and poetry, but I tend not to be working on albums and books simultaneously, which helps me feel like I’m not re-treading the same exact stuff (unlike the TV show Nashville, which I’m currently re-treading).  When I wrote Mouthguard I was weirdly self-conscious about being perceived as a “musician” poet, rather than a poet poet, and shied away from writing about music — even though music supplied so much of my joy, friendship, work life, thoughts, and world. For Cry Perfume, a lot of the poems were about live music as an industry and written while working full time in it, so music performance’s conventions and settings were inescapable. And, in moments of fatigue about music work, I would feel overcome by joy at reconnecting with music as a listener, and didn’t fear writing about that pleasure in a way I might’ve on the last book.

My PDF of the collection is highlighted to hell — but what is your favorite line from the collection? Which lines have stuck with you since writing it?

As I’m on tour, I’m still getting acquainted with which lines feel best out loud vs. which ones looked the most exciting to me while proofing. Generally the lines I’m most proud of wind up titles, and I like ones that frame the poem in a surprising way, evoke a world on their own, or offer a clear view in. And I guess I like to use this space to refer to other works as well. A couple favorites from this book: “Fuck No to All That,” “Yes Tears Left to Cry,” “Weird Touch I Spat As She Spidered,” “Bowling a 666,” and the poem which opens the collection, “Fake Blood on a Fake Fur Coat.”

“Yes Tears Left to Cry” was such a good one! I really loved those cheeky little homage riffs. When you use allusion and reference like this and you leave a door in the poem open to external works, does it change the way you relate to the media you consume?

I think I’m so used to doing it. I wouldn’t say it lessens my fandom or interest in art to be figuring out ways to refer to it. I think I’ve always liked media that is referential like that. I love when I see a movie, and I know I’m immediately going home to look up every single Easter egg I might have missed. So, similarly, I think I’ve always really enjoyed putting my own Easter eggs in poetry or songwriting, especially referring to my friends’ projects. If I hear a huge pop song and think there’s an opportunity to play with the title, that’s very fun for me. I probably heard No Tears Left to Cry more than any other song the year it came out, so it would be hard to not refer to it in a book.

Oh absolutely, I loved that magpie sensibility. Song titles or certain lyrics absolutely do become really specific touchstones for me, in the same way that people talk about smells. You hear certain parts of a song and immediately it’s like, “Oh, that’s October 2018.” It’s a really special way of engaging with and enjoying art, and that enjoyment is another thing this collection captures so well. Your line “I don’t review art/ When I like it I like it/ embarrassingly,” is such a lovely manifesto in favor of that vehemence of artistic enjoyment. What are some books/music/television/movies that you’ve “liked embarrassingly” lately? What do you recommend we read or listen to or watch after finishing Cry Perfume?

It’s dorky to shout out my tourmate and friend Michael DeForge but whatever—his work always blows me away and his newest book Birds of Maine does too. If you like talking birds, socialist utopias, and the ideologic possibilities of the early internet as represented by fungal networks, this is a graphic novel you should grab. Beyond the nepotism, some fiction favorites I’ve read this year are Monarch by Candace Wuehle, Beating Heart Baby by Lio Min, and Darryl by Jackie Ess. On the poetry front, I’ve especially loved collections by Alison Lubar, Arisa White and Rachelle Toarmino. And the essays in Raquel Gutiérrez’s Brown Neon blew me away.

This bar I’m typing in right now (Providence’s The Hot Club!)  is playing “Powerful Love” by Chuck & Mac which always makes me cry! I’m trying really hard not to do that on top of my laptop. In the car with Michael we’ve been listening to Guerilla Toss, Illuminati Hotties, Queen Bee, Garcia Peoples, and 311 came on the radio today to much delight.

My TV taste is bad and that’s fine for me (less fine for my partner who’s forced to watch along). The closer something feels to Riverdale, the more I’m suckered in. Search Party and Barry fall more into the “other people also like this show” category of my fandom, but I love them both. Paranoia Agent and Veronica Mars are the all time faves. And I’m really glad for the return of Los Espookys.

Oh gosh, I love this — I’m also a Riverdale and Veronica Mars kid, so I deeply relate! 

On the movies front, all five Screams are top of the pops and cutesy meta horror is the corner I won’t get out of. Unfriended, We’re All Going to the World’s Fair, and Uncle Peckerhead are a few other semi-recent ones in my personal canon. Lately I’ve been on an “underappreciated John Carpenter movies” streak and Christine is my current fave. Michael and I got to screen Josie & the Pussycats in New York last weekend, one of our mutual greatest hits. Last night, I was up until 4:00am watching a movie called Nerve, which had Emma Roberts and Machine Gun Kelly in it.

Those four in the morning movie experiences are always very intense for me. Even if the movie is terrible, I’m like, “This is the most profound experience I’ve ever had.” How was it?

I think that I would have to say that it’s good! It’s a fun, high-stakes game of social media daring.

Cry Perfume by Sadie Dupuis is out now.

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Yashwina Canter is a reader, writer, and dyke putting down roots in Portland, Oregon. You can find her online at @yashwinacanter.

Yashwina has written 53 articles for us.

1 Comment

  1. This is such a fascinating interview Yash! I loved the discussion of writing unerusing scent as a sense and its more tenuous connection to language. I’m off to request this book at the library!

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