‘I’ve written road songs, river songs, wave songs, songs about mountains and plateaus … Place has always been important to me. People and places. It’s all about the consecration of people and place.’ – Sam Hunt
Sheep shit, rugby and poetry
In an awkward clash of cliché and fact, I grew up on a sheep farm in New Zealand, in a house owned by a former All Black. In this steep green place, where the melodic peals of bellbirds rang out from ferny valleys and the lambs shat in your gumboots if you left them out overnight, I met my first poet. His name is Sam Hunt, and I owe him an apology.
No Kiwi worth their salt doesn’t know Sam’s name. His exuberant live performances, fuelled by red wine and his own restless, fizzing energy, are the stuff of pub and schoolyard legend. Driving to school we’d often spot his unmistakable figure striding along the roadside: tall and thin, shock-headed and long-legged, clad rakishly in stovepipe jeans and flowing scarves, with his equally famous sheepdog Minstrel loping at his heels. As he wrote in ‘Lines for a New Year’, ‘A friend used to say / my dog and I / had the same way of walking, / especially walking away.’ When Minstrel died in 1988, it was the lead item on the evening TV news. The whole nation mourned that dog.
Minstrel was so perfect and bloody lovely. When he died I lost a very good friend. He always travelled with me, and rumour has it he often used to do the driving, especially after a show – although I can’t confirm that, I was too pissed! Hahaha. But he certainly got behind the wheel. He didn’t touch my booze, but he liked to get into the hooch, so I had to watch out for that.
By reputation Sam was kind-hearted, charismatic, cheeky, incorrigible. You could tell he was a poet just by looking at him, and my sister and I adored him from afar. The guy was pure rock ‘n’ roll. He called his poems ‘road songs’. They were taut and unpretentious, funny or sad, sprinkled with swear-words, and he wrote about places we knew and loved. The titles were mini-poems in themselves: ‘Bottle to Battle to Death’, ‘School Policy on Stickmen’, ‘Girl with Black Eye in Grocer’s Shop’. He’d often recite other poets’ works from memory.
If a poem moves you, you may grow to love it and become unable to live without it. I’ve got thousands of poems in my head, and I can’t forget them. I remember the ones I love, so I’ve always got them with me … My best poem? Tom and Alf. My two sons.
Back then, Sam lived in a boat-shed on Paremata Harbour, across the water from our house. New Zealand is a small place with a high eccentricity count, and it’s no big stretch for a poet and a rugby-playing farmer to be close pals. Sam was mates with our family friend and landlord, the ex-All Black Ken Gray, and the poet often rowed his boat across the harbour help paint Ken’s woolshed, do some hay-baling, or join his family for dinner – reciting poems, telling stories and puffing funny cigarettes, which Ken valiantly tried to explain away to his teenage kids.
Nosy little bastards
A nomadic type, and with scant room in his boatshed, Sam also stored a bunch of his belongings in the attic of the old barn behind our chook shed. Free to roam across thousands of acres, ride horses, have mud-fights, harass tadpoles or get stuck up trees, you’d think we’d have spent every day immersed in such wholesome outdoor pursuits. But that musty attic exerted a strange magnetic pull. Time and again we’d climb the rickety ladder up to poke around in the poet’s personal effects.
Up there, amongst the smell of wool grease and decades-old manure, we’d pore over Sam’s treasures: old typesets from his early print runs, a tiny bible with a mother-of-pearl cover, a smutty paperback in which sex-crazed satyrs and nymphs cavorted (this is not a man who shied away from carnal matters: Sam’s friend, fellow poet James K Baxter, once hailed Hunt in verse by rhyming his name with the epithet ‘oyster cunt’). There were postcards from Paris, letters from Baxter, drawings by the artist Robin White, books galore, and other precious mementoes (here I’ll grant the man some privacy). We spent whole afternoons up there, breathing in the dust of the poet’s life.
I did my first paid show when I was 17. It’s a lonely old occupation, being a lighthouse. It’s a fucking lonely existence, throwing out what light you can … It’s a precarious existence, but it all becomes worth it when you get to the show. A lovely audience, the venue packed out, and you get the most wonderful responses. It’s just incredible. Magical.
Children get away with things no adult would dare attempt, much less least admit to. Rummaging around in Sam’s stuff, we never felt we were doing anything wrong; in fact Ken told us we had Sam’s blessing, and my sister swears she had a conversation with the poet by the chook shed, during which he ‘gave’ her the entire contents of that attic. But today I feel a vague guilt over that ransacking, our nosy repeat perusal of a man’s personal belongings – a guilt compounded by the fact that I’m now telling you about them.
Protect your spark
Why were we so fascinated? What were we looking for? The answer, I suspect, is that most elusive of trace elements: Essence of Poet. I wanted to be like Sam – a wandering raconteur, a rebellious wordsmith, wearing waistcoats and drinking claret, loved and welcomed everywhere. I’d barely hit school when I said I wanted to be a writer. ‘But writers don’t make any money,’ said my dad, hoping to steer me toward a more sensible path.
I grew up to prove dad correct. But I also remember some alternate advice, this from Sam himself, dispensed during a dinner party at the Grays’ house. As we left, Sam put down his wine glass, took my eight-year-old hand, looked me in the eyes and said, in his low gravelly drawl: ‘Never let them steal your spark. Okay? Remember: never let them steal your spark!’
Great advice. I wish I’d followed it more often. But occasionally, when spark-stealers have lurked in my life, Sam’s words have returned to me. So along with that overdue apology, I also owe him thanks. I track down his mobile number … then hesitate. Who wants to be a pest from the past?
Five gunshots from humanity
It’s no accident that Hunt now lives in New Zealand’s remote far north. He’s been declared a national icon, and strangers stop him in the street to tell him their life stories. Today when not touring he cherishes his privacy, the peace and isolation of the Kiwi hinterland. He quantified his ideal domestic distance in a poem written for his younger son, with whom he lives: ‘Alive, Alf, to live / clear of any city / live more than five / gunshots from humanity’. Background noise, to Hunt’s mind, has a way of drowning out good poems.
I need a lot of solitude and silence to work. I’m not saying you have to be in particular state for a poem to happen, but if there’s a lot of noise, if you’re constantly surrounded by distractions, there’s more chance of missing it. A poem is an incredibly elusive thing – I mean a lyric poem, the kind of poem where you’re not so much creating it as having it given to you. When you think, where the fuck did that come from? Like waking from a dream.
Mid-winter, 2015: the signal bounces across the Tasman, lights on its target. Hunt picks up. The voice is the same, the wit quick and cheeky. He’s just home from a sell-out national tour to promote his new album, The 9th, a musical collaboration with David Kilgour and the Heavy 8’s. He has no idea who I am, and is at first politely wary. But he soon warms up. ‘Any friend of the Grays is a friend of mine,’ he says.
Working with musicians suits him. Despite having twenty-odd books under his belt, Hunt has the theatrical gene, and his poems are rhythmic things, born to be read aloud. It gets lonesome, too, being a poet touring solo: ‘I love DK (Kilgour) and the band. They’re like my younger brothers, they look after me. Musically, they surround me and work off me. To have such fucking superb company, both onstage and off, is a total pleasure and a gift.’
The new album is a corker – by turns lush, raucous, evocative and atmospheric, Hunt’s husky voice chanting the poems, backed by jangly guitars. It was recorded live, over four days in a Dunedin pub. Along with Hunt’s originals, it includes poems by Baxter, Yeats, and Hungarian poet Attila Jozsef.
Music can take a poem to places it mightn’t normally get to. Once all poems were songs. Then the printing press was invented and poems suddenly got crucified, nailed to the fucking page. And kept nailed there by academics who earn a living asking questions like ‘What is a poem? What is the poet saying?’ University English departments are some of the greatest butchers in the sense of killing poetry, taking it away from people, making it difficult, some sort of elite thing … I’m interested in poems – good poems – but I’m not interested in ‘poetry’.