A view from the edge

by Diana Wichtel / 16 August, 2008
On good days, Sam Hunt hears the sound of the words banging around inside his head. The result is Doubtless, his first book of poems in 10 years.

On the road with Sam Hunt. Well, sort of. Such is his status as a Kiwiana artefact - most Kiwi males can, when the occasion demands, pull out a passable haka or inebriated Sam Hunt impersonation - that just going to lunch with him assumes the air of a travelling roadshow. At 62, now living on the edge of the Kaipara Harbour, he is still dressed for the role. Skinny trousers? Check. Hair like pensioner perm in zero gravity? Check. We leave his place in my car, not, disappointingly, the battered campervan that serves as a poet-mobile. The road is like his conversation - meandering, gravelly and full of unexpected potholes. Off we go in a hail of poetry and slightly querulous backseat driver-isms: Keep left. Keep going. Slow down!

Lunch is at Matakohe - "Slow down!" - in the excellent cafe beside the Kauri Museum. Hunt is welcomed and fussed over like a cross between a close relative and the Queen. The waitress also cuts his hair, though not today.

A bottle of wine is ordered. He doesn't smoke cigarettes any more. Gave it away for Alf, his second son, 11 years old. So we sit inside. People gawp. "It's very hard being the town clock," he growls, as sotto voce as Hunt ever gets. "You're meant to know the time." A family edges over, trying to catch his eye. They heard him do some poems at the museum a while ago. The party's youngest, who is in a wheelchair, would like to meet Sam. Hunt looks ... hunted. The whole thing threatens to turn into an episode of Extras. But, once cornered, Hunt is charming.

The price of fame. Someone is writing a thesis about him, he confides. "I'm keeping well clear." Back at his place, he asks that I don't mention the exact locale. Strangers can turn up. He likes to give his address as "Five gunshots from humanity." He puts a rugby sock out at the gate to indicate the turn-off for invited guests. Hunt's place - ping-pong room for Alf downstairs, view of the Kaipara up - is suitably grungy, leased from the farmer.

On arrival, I am presented with a poem he has made for me. Well, not for me, exactly. When I called to get directions to the back of beyond, announcing my name set Hunt off on a riff - "Thought you were dead, ah-ha-ha-ha!"- about Princess Di. Overnight, the joke has resolved itself into a poem. Supply your own impersonation:

Your name, when said,

took me some other place ...

a different world, eh, bird,

a world where you and I

really managed to fly ...

Nice. Even before our interview, he was jammed on transmit, sending me 11 Runes (for Alf, turning 11). Lovely. He'd done something similar - Four Plateau Songs - for his now adult son, Tom. "So it's almost this rite of passage, at that age, that they have a poem or a song or a rune put their way." Why runes? "It's a secret council. It's a whispering, a charm." A verse, by definition, is a rune, he says. "I've looked it up in the past, just to be sure the academic boys from the English departments aren't going to jump any harder than they already do. 'That's not a rune.' Well, f--- off."

Even Hunt's emails are poems: "Rain falling. Wind cranking from the north-east. Heart ticking ...!"

The generation of this creative avalanche is assisted, these days, by his new computer, his first, bought mainly for Alf. "It's like having a stranger come in as a house guest," he says, eyeballing it warily from across the lounge. It fires up to the sound of a tui's song. "The tuis out there all join in," he says, indicating the totara beyond the deck. "Throw the doors open, start the computer up and whoomp."

So, he's writing his poems on the computer now? "I don't write on anything. My process is listening to the words banging around inside my head, which make a sound. Which on good days I can hear."

He has had enough good days to produce Doubtless, his first book in 10 years. New poems up front, the already published selected poems at the back. The selected poems go right back. "I think there's a poem there I made up in about 1965." He's vague about the arrangement of the older poems. "I can't quite remember the pattern at the moment, but there was a logic to it. It wasn't that I just got pissed and threw them on the floor and put them in the order I picked them up," he says, not entirely convincingly. He invokes Allen Curnow's Continuum - "A book I love. What a great title, too. That didn't start at the beginning."

Anyway, he says, he doesn't write poetry. "I have nothing to do with poetry. Poems is what I like." His family was not particularly literary. "My father was a lawyer. My mother loved words - and, sometimes, my father. Ah-ha-ha!"

Hunt's laugh is frequent and slightly pained, as if he's being kicked repeatedly in the funny bone. In between, he throws out a protective wall of interference - anecdotes, quotes and poems - that you can never quite see behind.

Still, he's excellent company. His talk has a punning, pinball momentum. A meditation on what makes someone a poet runs right off the rails. "A person who is creating a poem - for me, that is a poet. They might not be a poet in five minutes' time. They may be a child molester or a bus driver. Hopefully, the latter." Not a school bus driver, with any luck. "No. Not a school bus driver."

The sound of a word as it leaves his mouth will set him off. "There are certain little currents going through, little eddies," he says, of the themes running through Doubtless. "Eddies. Eddies and Isabels. Lovely little poem by ee cummings." And he's away again, telling it. It's "eddyandbill", actually. I looked it up. But his recall is extraordinary. And frustrating. Many of the questions you put to him are answered not by Hunt but by Yeats or Baxter or Siegfried bloody Sassoon:

"Quoting, for shallow conversational ends,

What Shelley shrilled, what Blake once wildly muttered ..."

It's like trying to interview an anthology. A psychologist, Hunt tells me, has done a study of his memory patterns. "This woman reckons I know about 2000 poems by heart, my own and stuff by other people ... People say, 'How do you know all those poems by Yeats or Baxter or Pablo Neruda?' I say, 'Well, I can't f---ing forget them, that's the problem.'"

Doubtless. Hunt loves the word. And the entry in Captain James Cook's journal, which declared, when the vista suggested otherwise, "Doubtless a bay". The new poems are short, spare. "Like a sonata ... Denis Glover used say, 'Sambo, the toughest ones to write are the simple ones.'" He doesn't want to be writing long poems right now. "I was pleased one editor said she found three adjectives, something like that. Maybe three too many."

The subject matter is familiar: love and landscape; birth and death; memories and weather reports. Hunt's mother died four years ago. In the new poems, there's an ongoing conversation with her. "I think there is. She brought a lot of poems my way." She was a convert to Catholicism, but a faith quite different from what Hunt endured at school. "Talk about hostile, especially St Peter's." In No Bells (in memory, Betty Hunt) he writes:

What's it like,

did it all go dark and

that was that. Or was it all light;

and you, on this occasion, right?

The poems can have a dark undertow, too. There's this greeting, in Doubtless, to the newborn babe he's holding:

hushed, I kept it low

(didn't want to go

upsetting the olds) -

'Welcome to Death Row.'

Hunt has hit a few potholes at speed along the road. He has famously battled the bottle. "Oh, yeah. Still do." The demons are there, he says. Cue some lines of Theodore Roethke:

I meet my shadow in the deepening shade;

I hear my echo in the echoing wood-

A lord of nature weeping to a tree.

Hmmm. This leaves me none the wiser as to whether I should fetch the bottle of red I've brought him. Does he drink socially now? "Oh, I probably shouldn't but I do." Part payment for his entertaining Friday morning segment on Kiwi FM comes in wine.

As for the wild times, "I wouldn't have it otherwise," he says. "You can be sober for seven years and think you're wonderful, and the next day you don't know where you've woken up. And some people may say how terrible, or how tragic. I'd say how f---ing magic."

There are lines in the poems that evoke the lure of death. "I've seen you, mother, do; what until last Wednesday; neither had dared to," he writes. "It is a reference to the flirtation," he agrees. And yes, there have been attempts to take his own life. "Oh, I've had a go a few times. It's like the edge of the cliff. You get a great view but you get scared as hell sometimes, too. And the closer you get, the dodgier it gets and the better the view gets." He once worked as a window cleaner to make a buck. "So there's always been that wish to go as close as possible to the edge."

But not at the moment. "I have reasons right now not to want to be going too close to that edge." Alf? "Yeah, that's a good reason." Hunt knows what it's like to have an older dad. He wants to be around. "My father was 60 when I was born." In 11 Runes for Alf, Hunt says, "I'll give what I've got; to see you to manhood." So he's taking a few steps back from the abyss. "It's not because you've lost your nerve," he hastens to add, protective of his roaring-boy image, forged over years on the road or holed up in places with names like Bottle Creek.

Though, on a lighter but still disturbing note, his street cred may have taken a bit of a knock thanks to those Cobb & Co commercials. "My, oh my!" indeed. He doesn't care about that. "It paid well - they booked a studio for three hours and we were out in 15 minutes." Cobb & Co is keen to have the new book in its restaurants. Will you have some iconic Kiwi poetry with that? "At least it's not McDonald's."

Whatever you can accuse him of, it's not poetic pretension. During a 1980 tour, a Sydney Morning Herald reporter described Hunt and long-time partner-in-crime Gary McCormick as "two refugees from an early 60s rock film". He's currently working on an album setting his poems to music with the Clean's David Kilgour. They finally met last October, thanks to another anecdote: "David Kilgour was on the same plane and he ended up with my boarding pass. How about that!" The album should be out next year. Hunt may even sing.

Fair enough. He talks about poems almost exclusively in the terminology of music. Point out that when he does other people's poems, they come out sounding like ... Sam Hunt, and he says, "Oh shit, do they? I worry sometimes, when you're doing a cover version. Well, you have to sing them in your own voice."

He does seem happier in the company of musicians. "The reason I'm at home with them is that they have more of an ear for the sound of words, often, than a lot of so-called poets, who don't seem to have any music in them at all."

You get the sense that he's been hurt by the judgments of "the academic boys from the English departments", the critics. Their crimes against humanity are an ongoing theme. "This may be a simplistic way to look at things, but I reckon poetry was kidnapped by the literati and academics and printing-press people four or five hundred years ago ... It left the people out and they went on to popcorn and pornography and pop-ups and things. They were left with the scraps."

Still, he's in the anthologies himself, and part of that tradition. He has toured with the likes of Hone Tuwhare, Denis Glover and Alan Brunton. "I've never found the literary scene of any interest. But there are writers among them who I live and would die for. Some of the great poets of this land, living and dead. The sort that don't ever die. Baxter. F---ing phenomenal."

In the end, he has put his money on being a performer. "For me, fitting in or not fitting in, where I feel more comfort-able is where the music, the word, is heard." These days, he's likely to head off from the Kaipara in a helicopter. "It isn't trying to be a rich poet or a poor rock star. It's just a hell of a lot easier."

He's not doing a lot of touring at the moment. "I'm working things around being a father. No way am I going to be an absent father. Somebody's got to make the school lunch."

And he is 62. "There's hot water and a hand towel and soap and, if you've got a weak heart, pills," he volunteers hospitably, of the house's amenities. But, professionally, he's not flagging. "Feels like a good feeling of growth in my bones. 'Dreams are easy. Wild horses,'" he says, quoting ... himself. "Oddly enough, the dreams are getting wilder.

Doubtless: it's a word that implies a certain faith. Which you need when you get up to perform a poem. Especially a new one. Even after all these years, it's a bit daunting. "I love that song of Bob Dylan's: 'A million faces at my feet but all I see are dark eyes,'" he intones. "If it's going to be a good show, there's always going to be one pair of dark eyes out there watching you. I don't mean just in the audience. Maybe a ghost from somewhere. Some electricity, some spark."

Hunt does sometimes give the impression of someone with a finger perpetually jammed in a socket. It's not just the hairdo. Even when he goes to the loo, he carries on, rather alarmingly, calling out poems through the half-closed door. The poet ... persisting. He can't help himself.

The Diana poem may have its ghosts, its bleak notes - Names get forgotten; the beautiful go rotten ...

But it ends afloat on a typically exuberant updraught:

I thought you'd died.

But you can fly:

just watch, I hear you cry,

just watch me!

There's a new feeling of urgency about his work, Hunt finds. "Got to do that. It won't come back. Madame Muse won't come knocking again. I believe in those things. That's my religion, I suppose."

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