For fifty years, New Zealand poet Sam Hunt has been travelling the length of the country reciting his works in far flung pubs, clubs, theatres, and school halls. In doing so, he has helped make the written word accessible and unintimidating to a broad audience, coaxing them with his maverick air and gracefully laconic prose. Written into New Zealand folklore as one of our most loved literary figures, his position was justly bolstered when Hunt was awarded a QSM and a CNZM for services to poetry. The subject matter of many television shows, documentaries, and interviews. Hunt will appear as part of the Hamilton Fringe Festival, on October 6th, and his performance will offer a wonderful opportunity to see a New Zealand icon.
Despite the accolades, Hunt quite simply considers himself to be a story teller. He quips “tell the story. Tell it true. Charm it crazy.” These three lines penned by Hunt many moons ago have acted as a “road code” for both his life and his writing. Hunt’s own story begins in 1946, in Castor Bay, Auckland. He was born to parents who actively shared their great love of poetry, often reciting poems to their son, who penned his first poem aged seven. While his father, a barrister, would have liked him to have forged a legal career, Hunt muses that “In a way, we are both doing the same thing. He had to swing a jury. I have to swing an audience. You’ve both got to have a way with words, a way with people, and a way with the world” Attempts to get a “real job” involved stints as a truck driver and at teacher’s college, but to no avail. “I don’t mean it to sound pretentious, but I always knew I’d end up doing this sort of thing.” But Hunt points out that being a poet is definitely not a career, but rather an “obsession that has always been central to what I am doing.”
The lines between the poet and his works are blurred to the extent that it is easy to describe Sam Hunt the poet the way that you would describe one of his poems- unostentatious, likeable, and eruditely insightful. Just as life evolves organically, so too do his poems. Like a true lexophile, Hunt finds himself “writing subconsciously all the time. I don’t pick a subject and write on it.” Rather his poems are informed by the ebb and flow of personal experiences. He likens his writing process to a woman giving birth. “From the time of conception, the finished work takes anything from nine seconds to nine years to form.”
Talking to him, it is clear that Hunt has an unwavering faith in the power of poetry, and it is important for him that poems do not get lost in the study of poetry. While “it’s good to have your poems work on an academic level, they are not an academic exercise.” Ever the romantic, Hunt is interested in “the telling of poems, in the terms of poetry being heard in the silence of your own head and heart. Like with music, it’s not necessary to know everything. I’ve got no way of knowing what Beethoven was thinking when he composed sonata number 24, but I know how it affects me.” Music is of significance to Hunt, and the “sheer sound of words” also helps inform Hunt’s writing process. Throughout his career, Hunt has worked with musician David Kilgour (The Clean, The Chills), The Warratahs, and has opened for Leonard Cohen.
Interestingly, Hunt does not consider an audience when he is writing. “They just get what they want to get, nothing more mind bending than that. I don’t have an agenda, it’s just got to sound right and true within myself. But if my audience like my poems, then I am honoured.” But when one talks to readers of Hunt’s poetry, it could be argued that these poems have become just as much a part of New Zealand as they are about Hunt’s own experiences. His words have a formidable life force printed on the page, but something truly magical happens when they are performed live. Elegantly tousled with an easy laugh, Hunt punctuates his performances with witty anecdotes that further add to his renowned affability. He recites a mixture of his own poems and what he calls “cover poems” which he selects from his favourite poets (Neruda, Yeats, Baxter, to name but a few) because they are “poems that I cannot forget.” People attending the Hamilton Fringe Festival can also expect a few new poems from Hunt’s yet to be released book Salt River Songs due out Easter 2014. Aside from that he “doesn’t know what they (audience members) can expect. A nervous breakdown? A return to childhood?” We will have to go to find out.
To the question “What do you want your legacy to be?” Hunt laughs richly. “I’d like people to say who the fuck was he again?” When you have given such a rich contribution to the literary landscape, this might be easier said than done.
This article was first published in the Waikato Times in September 2013