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Brittany Dennison

Brittany is a poet and writer based in New York. She also works at the publishing company New Directions. You can find more of her work at saywhen.substack.com.

Brittany Dennison's Articles


From left: Courtesy Krystal. Courtesy Jewlieah.

The TikTok “Vabbing” Trend, Explained

You’re on TikTok, looking for something, but you don’t know what. You wander down what seems to be a promising path, turn a corner and encounter a pleasant-looking woman with balloonish words hovering over her—“VABBING 101”—and you pause.

The Secret Perfume of Birds cover

The Secret History of Bird Smells

Danielle Whittaker was never particularly fond of birds. She started her studies as an evolutionary biologist by focusing on the monogamous mating patterns of gibbons in Indonesia, but the small sample size to observe in a remote area wasn’t fulfilling as a scientist, so she switched to the most monogamous (and plentiful) species: birds. In her years of examining bird mating at the Beacon Center for the Study of Evolution in Action at Michigan State University, she discovered not only a love of birds and their particularities, but patterns of behavior that showed birds have a more highly keen sense of smell than what was established by scientists as respected as John James Audubon himself. Whittaker examines all this and more in her new book, The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent (Johns Hopkins University Press). We recently spoke with her about her research on bird behavior and how their sense of smell and their own unique scent might be used to help conservation efforts in the future.

A member of Engines for Change at the 2021 Ride Against Hunger in Toronto. (Photo: Dan Lim)

A Nonprofit Holds Up the Motorcycle as a Tool for Social Change

A motorcycle, at its most basic, is merely an object: two wheels, an engine, and a seat, on which a rider (if not a kickstand) keeps it all balanced. In America in the mid-20th century, the motorcycle was heavily laden with symbolism. It evolved into the must-have accessory for chaos agents—the James Deans and Evel Knievels of the world—and became an icon of the Hells Angels. But before that, motorcycles were largely practical machines, not symbols: Their spry bodies were used to deliver messages to and from the front lines in the First World War.

Barda dish being cooked by a flame

At This Argentinian Restaurant in Detroit, Food Gets Flavored by Flames

There is no official embassy of Argentina in Detroit, but chef Javier Bardauil and Ignacio Gerson, co-owners of Barda, consider their restaurant the unofficial one.

Sarah Masoni. (Courtesy Sarah Masoni)

A Food Designer’s Secrets to Making the Perfect Ice Cream

I met food designer Sarah Masoni at the tail end of New York’s Summer Fancy Food Show, a bi-annual convention for the kinds of prepackaged substances typically found at a neighborhood grocery store. During our conversation at her booth in the “Incubator Village” section, Masoni was hounded by friends and fans who wanted to shake hands, take a picture, and talk shop—an almost celebrity-like status earned from her long history in the business of injecting inventive ideas into the things we eat. As the director of the product and process development program at Oregon State University’s Food Innovation Center, a multidisciplinary partnership with the Oregon Department of Agriculture, Masoni works with food entrepreneurs who want to grow a kernel of an idea into a full-fledged business. At the convention, several of the booths around her were operated by people she has advised, all of whom gushed about her creativity, generosity, and brilliance.

A mosquito coil.

Plant-Based Extracts to Fend Off Mosquitoes This Summer

Mosquitos don’t mind how badly we stink in the summer. In fact, the more we sweat, the easier it is for them to find us: The naturally occurring lactic and uric acids on our skin serve as lighthouses for the hungry little ladies (only female mosquitoes feed on blood, which provides rich nutrients and amino acid proteins for their eggs), who have multiple types of odor receptors on their antennae tuned to detect chemicals found in perspiration. Fortunately, anointing yourself in certain plant oils has been scientifically proven not only to make you smell delightful, but also to repel the pesky biters.

One of Alvaro Catalán de Ocón’s Plastic Rivers rugs. (Courtesy Alvaro Catalán de Ocón)

Home Furnishings That Rethink the Future of Plastic Bottles

The Spanish designer Alvaro Catalán de Ocón’s repurposed plastic furnishings weren’t just born from a sense of duty. While fully aware of plastic’s alaming impacts—including environmental damage, lifelong effects on human health, and levels of pollution that the president of the U.N. Environment Assembly recently deemed an epidemic—he also appreciates the material for what it is: a lightweight, flexible, yet strong substance that can be sculpted into countless forms. Plastic bottles in particular, which can transport liquid indefinitely without the risk of shattering or leaking, are modern marvels—and yet most of us use and dispose of them without a second thought. “Plastic is, I believe, the most important material of the twentieth century,” says Catalán de Ocón, who manufactures and distributes self-initiated projects via his Madrid-based studio, ACdO. “The problem is that the price and the value of the material does not match at the moment.”

A breathwork class at Frequency Mind. (Courtesy Frequency Mind)

To Achieve a Mind-Expanding State Without Taking Psychedelics, Try Breathwork

In the late 1960s, Czech psychotherapist Stanislav Grof concluded, through his research on LSD at John Hopkins University, that psychedelic drugs could help treat emotional trauma—but without easy access to them, patients couldn’t take advantage of his findings. As an alternative, he and his late wife, the author and a psychotherapist Christina Grof, developed holotropic breathwork, a series of breathing techniques meant to induce “natural” psychedelic states through controlled hyperventilation that could be achieved without taking the illicit substance.

Weed joint

The Chemistry Behind Marijuana’s Skunky Scent

The smell of marijuana has long been demonized as “skunky”—linking the typically negative connotations of being high with the indelible disaster that is sprayed from a skunk’s behind. Skunkiness has no pleasant olfactory associations; it’s described as smelling like rotten eggs, burnt rubber, and farts. It’s no wonder that, for many years, to be accused of smelling like a pothead was a grave insult.

PlantWave device

A User-Friendly Device That Creates Ambient Music With Plants

In his 1967 poem “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace,” the late author Richard Brautigan, a mascot of ’60s counterculture, longed for “a cybernetic meadow / where mammals and computers / live together in mutually / programming harmony.” His words reflected a popular sentiment of his generation, who pollinated a field of musical experimentation with technology of the late 20th century, such as modular synthesizers and tape loops, and drew inspiration from the natural world. Many artists saw nature and the electronic as coexistent—even as having a symbiotic relationship.

@RomanceSmells Twitter logo

The Most Enticing Man Smells, According to Romance Novels

In 1994, when I was a child, Mattel released Tropical Splash Ken, a blond-haired and blue-eyed hunk in board shorts and nothing else but a fragrance. The box shouted, “Ken is scented!” And indeed, he was: floral with a hint of plastic, like a glossy, fake bird of paradise. Of all my dolls, this perfumed one was my favorite, my top pick for my Barbies whenever they needed a hot date. As I got older, my olfactory palate, and tastes in playmates, became more discerning, but the connection between Ken’s aroma and his desirability remained evidence of a seldom-discussed truth: Smell and courtship are inextricably linked.

Courtesy Inara

The Neuroscience-Based Fragrance Brand Pairing Scent With Soundscapes to Create Calm

Olfaction is our swiftest sense. Unlike new information detected by the eyes and ears, which is absorbed by the thalamus, a structure inside the brain, then relayed to the organ’s interpretive regions, smells zoom along dedicated pathways directly into the brain’s olfactory cortex for immediate decoding. That area of the brain also contains the limbic system and the amygdala, where emotions are made and memories of them are stored—which is why scents, feelings, and memory are closely intertwined.

Hanif Abdurraqib. (Photo: Megan Leigh Barnard)

For Hanif Abdurraqib, Language Is an Instrument

Poet, author, and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib is a seasoned conductor of language. His writing—a blend of autobiography, social history, and pop-culture commentary—often looks at the world through the lens of music, and takes a variety of forms. He hosts the podcast Object of Sound, which unpacks how popular songs shape society; and runs the website 68to05, where he publishes essays and playlists of favorite albums recorded between 1968 and 2005. His 2019 book Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest explores the 30-year history of the hip-hop group and how its jazz-infused sounds and socially conscious lyrics influenced 1990s rap. A Little Devil in America: Notes in Praise of Black Performance (Random House), out next month in paperback, collects Abdurraqib’s thoughts on pivotal moments in pop culture—including 19th-century minstrel dancer William Henry Lane, who performed for white audience in blackface, and Beyoncé’s 2016 Super Bowl halftime show—that provide a singular survey of Blackness and celebrate Black identity.

Steinway player piano (Courtesy Steinway & Sons)

Steinway Brings Live Recitals to Your Living Room, Piano and All

“Man-made artifacts could always be imitated by men,” philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote in his 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” “Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.” That rings true when it comes to music, where our technology for reproducing the sounds and sights of live performances have become more and more novel. And yet, the instruments themselves have largely stayed the same.

Carmex lip balm

What’s Behind Carmex’s Polarizing Medicinal Scent

I first heard the conspiracy that using Carmex lip balm actually made your lips more chapped in high school, the best time to set the foundation for my suspicions about the world. One would apply it, only to have crustier lips—an addictive negative-feedback loop that sent tens of dollars into the pockets of Big Chapstick. The balm’s pungent, herbal scent, paired with its curiously delightful stinging sensation, gave the impression that one was smearing on a potent salve, something cooked up in an apothecary—or was it simply the aromatic charm of snake oil?