Sounding The Sea: An Interview w/ Philip Hoare

Posted on 12.05.2017

On June 15th & 16th Invisible Dust will be hosting a symposium, Sounding The Sea, with artists, activists and scientists all delivering talks on their work and discussing the ever worsening issues affecting the world’s oceans. Visit the project page here for information and tickets.

In the lead up to the symposium, we are asking some of the speakers a few questions.

Today, its author, television writer and professor Philip Hoare; for whom the sea and its creatures have been a continuing source of inspiration.

ID:  Do you feel the seas and marine life has helped to shape your writing?  

PH:  Since writing and publishing Leviathan or, The Whale (2008) and for a long time before, the sea has determined what I do.  When my mother was heavily pregnant with me, my father – for some reason! – took her on a tour of a submarine moored in Portsmouth Harbour.  She began to go into labour; I was nearly born underwater. Yet I never learned to swim until I was in my late 20s. I was mortally afraid of the sea, despite having been born and brought up beside it, here in Southampton.  I swim in it every day, winter spring summer and autumn. This morning I swam at 3 am in the pitch dark, residual light glinting on the oily water. It is the thought of what lies below that enthralls and appalls me. Yet I have never felt so safe in the water as when I swim with whales, monolithic grey leviathans whose placidity and communality puts us to shame.  Home to a whale is other whales. I feel the sea is my home, too. When I swim in the darkness, I pull it over myself like a quilt.  

ID: Is there a personal experience involving the sea that really sticks out in your memory?

PH: All of them.  But my first encounter with a sperm whale, swimming to me as close as you are to me now, reading on your blue screen, is hard to dispel.  She is always there in my head, echo-locating my body with her click-click-clicking, trying to work out what I was. I was trying to do exactly the same.  In March I was back in the water with whales. But this time it was a rather less placid experience. You’ll have to wait till my talk to find out.  

ID: You’re currently a professor of creative writing at Southampton, when did you begin teaching and has it had any impact on the way you approach your writing?  

PH: I love teaching, which I’ve only just started doing, because I felt in my old age I ought to be responsible and do something respectable.  Luckily, because the University of Southampton realises it’s difficult to catch me in an academic net, they let me swim free. Students are great.  Like sponges. I pick them up and soak them with unutterable strangeness. They like that.

ID: Can you tell us about your new book Rising Tide Falling Star? 

PH: Well I can tell you that its title is RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR and it deals with drowned poets, eccentric artists, queer writers, tempests and storms, selkies and cetaceans and mythic birds and all the fluid states in between what we profess to be as a species and what we might really become.  It stinks of the sea. People say we are an island and we can pull up the bridges. They say we can set ourselves free and sail back into the past. But if the past teaches you anything about this archipelago we call home it’s inexorably connected, not disconnected, by the water that surrounds us.  There is no more fluid state that the sea around us and the sea inside. It is the future and the past and the present. You are 90% water. So is this planet. When people first heard the songs of humpback whales in the 1970s they thought they were listening to aliens underwater, singing a threnody, a lament for what we had done and still do to them.  What they’d forgotten is that we are all aliens, washed up on this shore.

Philip Hoare’s book, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR, is published on 13 July.

Follow Phillip on Twitter: @philipwhale

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