Literary Gem: Sam Hunt
It was Easter Sunday and a meandering drive from Mangawhai ‘out West’ lead through the quaint township of Maungaturoto and shortly after to the small settlement of Paparoa. Gather met poet Sam Hunt at the Paparoa Hotel in ’The Thirsty Tui’ pub, gorgeously retro-fitted in 1950’s style, complete with its Crown Lynn plate-ware. It was a warm reception (Sam was clearly a regular, and though he’d hate to admit it, a local celebrity,) and the kitchen had set aside their last homemade beef and ale pie for him, along with a bottle of his favourite Chilean red.
As we sat down to lunch at Sam’s favourite table, I noticed his natural charismatic charm. Now 72, he has a formal sensibility at times, but it is accompanied by the contagious joviality and enthusiasm of someone much younger. He is humble in his outlook — honest and at times self-deprecating — yet his creative abilities are obvious. He is a brilliant storyteller, noticeably at home when he is deep in the details of a story, eyes softly closed and hands gently dancing like props to the narrative. When we comment on his ability to recall poetry with such ease, he laughs, exclaiming “It’s not how do you remember them…it’s how would you forget them? They’re like noisy kids!”
Sam spoke about his deep connection to the Kaipara, and how he came to settle in the area. After growing up in Castor Bay, Milford, then living around the Cook Straight for much of his life, he moved north in 2002 to be closer to his son, Alf. He became attached to the area, describing it as having “a good feel” and has now lived there for 18 years.
Rugged farmland meets with the tidal waters of the Kaipara Harbour, creating a sense of spaciousness that allows him to think. He references four lines from a poem 11 Runes (for Alf turning 11) “Alive Alf to live / clear of any city / live as we do / five gunshots from humanity” and explains that he requires a degree of silence to allow his poems to form. The inner world of a poet can be busy enough; Hunt can recognise five distinct poetic ‘voices’ within his own mind, two of them female and three of them male.
Like muses, these voices help him to create the poetry he composes. “The first thing I know about the poem, I could say, is the key it’s in. Once I know the voice, and I can hear the voice of the poem, I’m halfway there. The scribbling down bit is important…but the most important part is to get that voice going.” He likens the world of poetry to that of dreams, suggesting that poems “often come well before the realisation of what is happening.”
Sam often writes from his favourite chair, (though just as likely, he tells me jokingly, he’ll be swinging from the light-bulb — it depends on the mood), gazing over his small woodland of totara trees to the harbour, absorbing his environment. But while he enjoys his solitude, a sense of place matters deeply to him, and much of his inspiration is found in people within their landscape.
He mentions a close friend who had recently died and in response, he had found the person for whom to name his poem ‘Old Flames’. He explains: “It was a poem looking to be dedicated to someone. They’re like orphans sometimes, your poems.” Hunt recognises a need for human connections and community; “To have a bit of humanity going past can be just enough, the difference between becoming depressed and isolated, which is easy in my job, because I feel I need the silence so I am able to hear my poem…but in doing that, I isolate myself a lot, from people.”
The sea has always been a comforting presence in his life — even from birth. Sam describes being born with his head ‘in the caul’ (within the amniotic sac); a rare phenomenon which for centuries had an attached superstition of protection from drowning at sea. He has always lived near the water, including Milford Beach, Cook Straight and a series of boathouses north of Wellington, named ‘Bottle Creek’, ‘Battle Hill’ and ‘Death’s Corner’ (the first named by Sam, the other two named previously).
He speaks fondly of a particular memory: “I could hold my breath and in that time I could jump in the dinghy, slide down the slipway and be in the water.” This delightful ritual forms the opening scene of his 1988 documentary Catching the Tide: Sam Hunt’s Cook Strait. From his current home in the Kaipara he can look right down the river, and explains he is happiest when he is close to the sea. Plus, he says, he is a Cancer sign (the crab and a water sign), along with two of his New Zealand poetic heroes James K. Baxter and Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, adding half-jokingly, “my theory is…all the best poets are Cancerians.”
Fittingly, there is a natural ‘ebb and flow’ within Sam’s poetry, which has been applauded for it’s lyrical, performative style. Growing up in a family environment rich with connections to writers and performers, he references the 30 year age difference between his mother and father, allowing exposure to a varied discourse of poetry and literature.
From his father’s side came the love of traditional ballads, citing Lord Ullen’s Daughter by Lord Alfred Campbell as a favourite and from his mother’s side, “good poems that you just couldn’t forget,” listing W.B.Yeats, W.H.Auden, Sylvia Plath and Robin Hyde as central figures. Literary and theatrical genes combined to create Hunt’s characteristic style and as he puts it; “I remember saying years ago, when I compose a poem, I’m my mother’s son and when I go out on stage and deliver it, I’m my father’s son.”
When asked if he chose poetry as his vocation, Sam affirms his mother always said it was decided. “When I wrote the first poem I remember writing (when I was about seven), she said right away, that is what you’re going to be doing.” Entitled Lone Pine Poem it describes the journey for a lone Christmas tree and demonstrates Hunt’s early ability to capture images in words. Interestingly, he specifies the act of creating poetry as one of ‘composing’ rather than writing; poems are not born from pen to paper, but instead emerge aurally, as a song would.
This uniqueness has allowed him to write and publish over 20 collections of poems, his most recent titled Salt River Songs (2016) and Coming To It (2018), both written from his home on the Araparoa (one of the five main salt rivers of the Kaipara Harbour). He has performed extensively throughout the country, in a diverse range of venues, from local pubs to community halls. Most recently he has been collaborating with New Zealand music legend David Kilgour and his band The Heavy 8’s in a dynamic confluence of poetic and musical experimentation.
Other than his creative upbringing, Sam does not speak of mentors in the form of individual people, preferring to think of poems as his mentors. As he explains, “Every poem you’ve come across…they’re showing you how to do it.” He lists the poem Why don’t you talk to me? by Alistair Te Ariki Campbell as one of his favourites and he recites it to us word for word, clearly moved. He speaks of being affected by a huge number of people “…songwriters…lyricists…people who use words and understood that the silence between words is just as important as the words themselves.” Without a lesson to teach or a message to preach, Sam Hunt’s poetry has always been about sharing stories and telling life as it is. His honest, earnest approach matched with his natural flair for language and rhythm has established him as one of New Zealand’s most beloved poets. The Kaipara is lucky to have him.