We Shot the Albatross: Jeffrey Barbeau interviews Philip Hoare

Ah Wretch 1

Photo credit: Ellen Gallagher + Edgar Cleijne, ‘Ah Wretch’, installation view, The Edge, University of Bath, February 2020. Courtesy: Philip Hoare

We Shot the Albatross: Jeffrey Barbeau interviews Philip Hoare

More than 200 years after its publication in Lyrical Ballads (1798), “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” remains one of Coleridge’s most celebrated poems. The work has inspired countless dramatizations, imitations, and presentations in visual arts, music, and, most recently, a website devoted to a new interpretation of the work for our times: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner Big Read (https://www.ancientmarinerbigread.com/). The project, following in the footsteps of award-winning author Philip Hoare’s production of Moby-Dick Big Read, assembles a star-studded cast of readers to recount the Mariner’s calamitous voyage. Jeffrey Barbeau, associate editor of The Coleridge Bulletin, sat down for a video conversation with Philip Hoare, co-creator of the stimulating new project, in May 2020 to ask him more about the origins of the Ancient Mariner Big Read, the process by which it was created, and the meaning of Coleridge’s poem today.

The following is an excerpt of their conversation, which appears in full in issue no. 55 of The Coleridge Bulletin.

JB: Some listeners would prefer a single reader the whole way through the whole poem—Ian McKellen’s reading comes to mind—but you have explored multiple voices. You did this already in your previous project, the Moby-Dick Big Read. What do you think the use of multiple voices adds to the poem that a single reader doesn’t allow for?

PH: I think it keeps you on your toes. We live in an age of short attention spans. I think of these as broadcasts. They are more like tweets. It’s anathema to an old school Coleridgean, I’m sure. In fact, Marianne Faithfull said to me, “You’re ruining the poem! How dare you do that!” I said “Well, yeah, I know we are in one way, but we’re trying to make it open to people.”
    The other thing we felt is that you really got to know the text. You saw the poem and heard the poem and, in that old school way, maybe start to learn the poem. That was the feeling.
    There are so many different voices in the poem anyway. Lots of different voices. Different points of view that those represent and where you are at different points. And the way that you forget things—it’s not all at sea, for instance, and the albatross isn’t in quite a lot of the poem. You kind of remember things that are strange and beautiful. It’s Wordsworthian in a way, isn’t it?

JB: I found the project forced me to slow down. The use of the commentary and the different readers. It encouraged me to look at each section differently because of that slowing down process. And there’s not only the readers and commentators but also images and film. The artwork that accompanies each reading seems to me an important aspect of what is happening. I’m thinking about Abigail Lane’s Forever Always Somewhere [no. 16] is almost comical with the scattering of bouncing bones or the squalid degradation of Chris Jordan’s Albatross [no. 25] footage. What guided the process of selecting these works and matching them to the various readings?

PH: The Abigail Lane appealed to me because it reminded me of the film 2001: A Space Odyssey. I see that as a very Coleridgean movie really. And I think the art was a way of bringing out the science fiction or time-travelling aspect of the poem as great art really. It was great to be able to do that, calling up great contemporary artists such as Marina Abramović, William Kentridge, Cornelia Parker, and Glenn Brown. If you go to them and start talking about the Rime, you don’t have to say more. It’s such a painterly composition. They just came up with great stuff. A lot of them let us use images that were already done, but some created images that were especially made for us. Charles Avery [no. 18] did a whole series of watercolors on the Ancient Mariner that are worth checking out. It’s really interesting. Ellen Gallagher [no. 19], a black American artist, her work is very evocative of the themes. She’s even made an additional piece for a physical exhibition of art by some of the artists that is touring around the U.K. She made a piece for that, a cyanotype, a hanging called “Ah Wretch.”
    Of course, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” is so heavily depicted in art history: Gustave Doré, Mervyn Peake, and David Jones—the Welsh artist working from the mid-1920s through the 1940s, who made these amazing images of the Rime. We didn’t want to use older images.

JB: And there’s a larger message here about the arts in public life, isn’t there? So often we think of science as something that stands separate from the humanities, and yet a project like this draws readers and listeners into a deeper interconnection between disciplines that are often divided. The Ancient Mariner Big Read project encourages people to think about the natural sciences, social sciences, and the humanities in a capturing of the whole. It is really quite Coleridgean and, in that sense, quite a gift to individual readers and the public.

PH: That’s exactly what Angela and I think about it, and the way we have thought about it all along. Angela and I have both worked with marine scientists and various people across disciplines. John Spicer, who is one of the scientific consultants on the project, he knows the poem by heart. His reading was recorded in Coleridge Cottage in Nether Stowey. So that’s absolutely what we wanted. Without sounding pompous, we really do see this as a gift to people. We’ve spent three years on it. We’ve not been paid for it. It’s just a labor of love. It’s been really hard work, and trying to persuade people to read it, not all of whom know what we’re talking about. But you say those lines, and they’re there! Coleridge would have seen no differences between the natural philosophies and the sciences and the arts—that disastrous schism is responsible for why we’re in this mess.

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