Off to the big smoke: A pilgrimage to poet Sam Hunt

by Russell Baillie / 24 August, 2018
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Illustration/Weef

Sam Hunt isn’t performing any more but he’s got a new book of poems and plenty of stories to go with them. (Warning: contains drug references and outbursts of poetry).

You take the turn-off from the main highway. You stop in the first small town to call to say you are 15 minutes away, as instructed. Past a second small town, at a turn-off to a gravel road, he’s waiting in his car. You know it’s his car because, as he told you in those many rambling calls to arrange this slightly suspect rural rendezvous, it has a racing number “four” on the door. It doesn’t look like a car made for racing. It doesn’t look a car made for going anywhere, much. As you pull up, an arm waves madly from the driver’s window.

The rest of Sam Hunt unfolds from the Mazda then attempts to fold into yours. His thatch of now-silver hair sits cabbage-tree-like on a long, slim trunk. His jeans are skinny. His boots are pointy and his heels are Cuban. His shirt collar is up. He’s dressed for lunch at the local. We are expected.

Sam Hunt has a new book out. Actually, there will soon be two. The first is Coming to It – Selected Poems, which bundles 120 poems (100 or so previously published, the rest new). In a few months will come Off the Road, a second biography by Colin Hogg, a sort of sequel to his 1989 book on touring with Hunt, Angel Gear. It will include some Hunt poems, but mainly there will be chapters devoted to such subjects as “Chicken flu and CK Stead”, “The drinking life”, “Awful academia”, and “It’s All Mince to the Sausage”.

Unlike the on-the-road Angel Gear, it is a stay-at-home affair that comes from the pair’s conversations pondering Hunt’s 72 years. As your day progresses, it becomes clear why conversations with Hunt can turn into books …

We have the dining room at the Paparoa Hotel to ourselves. Hunt sits in his usual spot with his back to the wall facing the door. His voice – yes, that epic rasping sing-song – bounces off the Formica table and his laugh rattles the windows. He has ordered his usual, a bottle of Chilean red – “I put them on to this stuff. They get it in for me” – and there’s banter with the staff about whether he’ll be needing the cork again. Fat chance.

You order a beer to be social and nurse it through the meal as his plonk chases down a gourmet pie and lubricates the telling of stories, tangential memories and occasional eruptions of verse. Yes, Sam Hunt is eating a pie in a Paparoa pub while reciting a poem. People would pay good money to see that. But he’s retired from showbiz. Gave it away a few years ago. It got a bit much.

As to why, he brings up a podcast he heard recently of the early BBC TV interview with 1960s British comedy star Tony Hancock, an alcoholic whose career foundered in the years before his suicide in Sydney in 1968. “I used to think of [Hancock] a lot while staying in hotels. During all the time I did those things, it made sense. But I was getting increasingly depressed by it. Doing the show, good. Getting there, shit. Getting home, shit.

“I started to panic when tours came along and I was starting to pull out of things. At one stage, my manager had set up a good little tour he had put a lot of work into, and others did, too, and I just got to the point where I couldn’t move.

“I remember the first time I ever did a public show, I was so nervous. I always got nervous. It was always a bad sign not to get nervous. That’s why, for example, cocaine was such a bad performance drug because it got rid of that threshold that you actually had to work to win your audience over. I could always tell a person who was performing on coke, when they didn’t have any sense of threshold.”

With a friend at the Paremata boat shed he lived in in the 1980s. Photo

With a friend at the Paremata boat shed he lived in in the 1980s.

So he doesn’t speak from personal experience? “Oh, yeah. But not in a major way. Because it wasn’t a good performing drug. You could argue no drug would be a good one … well, it depends on how much. I’ve been really pissed [while performing] a few times. Not as many times as a lot of people think.”

He misses getting in front of people, though. “But that’s only part of it. I miss that particular groove or energy. Doing a one-man show as an example of human activity, there’s an energy – I know it’s an over-used word – a kinetic energy pulsing around the place.”

His final shows included opening for Leonard Cohen a few years back. Backstage, New Zealand’s most famous living poet hit it off with Canada’s. After his set in Wellington, Hunt was groping his way down the stage stairs in the dark and found the hand guiding him belonged to the headliner. “And he said to me, ‘that was poetry’ … he led me across to his dressing room and he had a beautiful French red. It was part of his rider. I was able to help with his rider, too, in a private way. A bit of Kermadec special. He was wonderful.”

Back from the pub at Hunt’s place, he is grinding up some Kermadec special on the cover of that week’s Listener for a post-lunch joint: “I’m not a big smoker but I enjoy a puff now and again.”

He has lived for nearly 20 years in this rustic house down a hazardous driveway on a headland jutting into the Kaipara Harbour. He came here from Waiheke Island to be near his second son, Alf, as he grew up. These days, Hunt lives alone. “I like company but I’m not lonely on my own. I love the silence that solitude brings. Given another life in another time, maybe I would have been a monk.”

In this life, he clearly isn’t one. Even at his age. “I’ve got a really good woman friend I see – when she’s talking to me, which she is at the moment. No, she’s good. Actually, she’s great.”

Arriving home, he’s opened another bottle of robust red, offered up the only beer in the fridge, lit a fire, insisted on switching from RNZ Concert to playing a new track by David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights, the Dunedin band that has adapted his poems to music on two albums. The second, 2015’s The 9th, features Hunt on vocals.

The poet with dog Minstrel in 1991. Photo/Barry Durrant

There’s a Bob Dylan tea towel hanging in the kitchen and a Dylan Thomas box set near the stereo. A framed photo of Hunt committing neckwear crimes alongside then Governor-General Anand Satyanand, who invested him as a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2010, is propped against a wall by the loo. A photocopy of a photo of Hunt’s barrister father, Percy – a constant figure in his son’s poems and looking very much like his offspring – gazes upon the happy jumble from above.

It could be jumblier. Since 2012, many of Hunt’s papers have become part of the Alexander Turnbull Library after the institution came calling. What will literary historians find in the Hunt archive in a hundred years? “They will find a lot of scribblings and crossings-out,” he says, laughing. He found the library stocktake intriguing, especially when he saw some of his early work in its original form, such as when the library sent him a digital image of Postcard of a Cabbage Tree, which was first published in Landfall in 1969.

“And here was my original version and I was thinking, ‘f---, look at it’ … it was a good poem. I don’t know how many other 25-year-olds would have been writing poems like that.”

A few years later, he got famous. It happened on a Monday. The previous evening, arts programme Kaleidoscope screened a piece on the upstart poet who was making a name for himself performing in pubs. Hunt and his drinking mates at Paremata’s Bottle Creek had forgotten to watch it. He was in Porirua the next day and, as he hitched home, a couple of farmers pulled up in a big car.

Sam Hunt in Auckland in 1983. Photo/Bruce Connew

Sam Hunt in Auckland in 1983. Photo/Bruce Connew

“I got in the back and said, ‘Thank you very much. I’m just going up to Paremata.’ This was the moment. This guy has a big ruddy face and he said, ‘F---. I know that voice.’ Because it had been a heavy night the night before, I didn’t register what he was talking about. I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He said, ‘Your voice. You were on TV. We sat up and we f---ing loved it.’ When I got out, they got out and shook my hand and I was a stuttering wreck.”

Subsequently, Hunt became many things: at one time, the most impersonated man in Aotearoa; a national treasure; a prominent poet with no foot in academia or university presses. He’s also the gateway drug to poetry for a generation or three. Poet laureate Selina Tusitala Marsh composed a tribute, Orange Crayon Stick Figure Man, to his formative influence: ... back in ’82/I was eleven when you came/to our Avondale school/you looked drunk/but you were nobody’s fool/like the unsung pied piper/you played your own tune …

His books keep selling. That’s why, after previous retrospectives, it makes sense for his publishers to offer Coming to It. The book’s first poem is the one of the title, an early 80s composition memorable for its appreciation of both canines (“A man without a dog is not a man”) and Van Morrison.

These days, he thinks the poem’s title line (“we’re all just/coming to it”) resonates differently. “In my mind, the poem is coming from an older person, a person more aware of mortality. Now, calling it Coming to It, the ‘it’ means … death. And it feels right, it feels completely in order. I don’t feel anything maudlin about that. It’s reality and that’s beautiful.”

The final poem is Brothers, a new lament for Hunt’s siblings (“My oldest brother/the Atheist/died Waitangi Day …”). “What other poem to finish with?” he says, quietly, briefly lost for words.

Life goes on for Samuel Percival Maitland Hunt. His poems keep coming, asking to be heard. “For me, the first awareness usually that I’ve got a poem coming along – ha ha ha, I was going to say something really crude then but I won’t.”

 

Sam Hunt. Photo/Simon Darby

Sam Hunt. Photo/Simon Darby

You have a spring in your step?

“Please. This is a Listener article. But the first awareness is the sound of a voice.” Not always his own. “If I am being really basic, I’d say I’ve got five voices, two of them are female and three of them are male … and people will be reading this article and saying, ‘He hears things in his head.’ Well, yes, dear Listener reader, that is the case. I do hear things like that.”

As the afternoon wears on, the temperature drops. So does the wine level in that bottle. He stokes the fire and pours another glass. Hunt tells stories about his father, whose jury-swinging style influenced his son’s delivery, and possibly that thing when his hand reaches out, pointing. Out. Each. Word.

There are demonstrations of recall of his and others’ poems and his memories of being a young pretender to such forebears as Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Allen Curnow and James K Baxter. He was a neighbour to the first, a cousin by marriage to the second and a devotee – and an editor of a recent anthology – of the third, who famously once responded to his young acolyte with A Letter to Sam Hunt.

“Baxter? I’m a minnow by comparison,” he says, puffing on a second joint. “Not all my poems. I mean, I am not putting myself down. But the amount of poems. I mean, he was only 46 when he died, for God’s sake. Forty-six. I’m 72. I’m well past my use-by date. When he died, I thought, ‘Shit, he was old’, and I was 26.”

When Hunt goes, people will probably think different things about how long he’s lasted. For now, he is sitting, smiling, teeth reddened, pondering a final question: any regrets? “I want to answer this honestly, so I’m pondering, but what I’ve got to say is going to sound arrogant and pleased with myself like I am a King’s College boy, which I am not.

“But no, no regrets. I’m blessed, and I use that word carefully. I’m blessed to have had whatever is needed to actually do the things that I believed in.”

Coming to It – Selected Poems (Potton & Burton) is out now. Off the Road, by Colin Hogg (HarperCollins), will be released in November.

This article was first published in the August 25, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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