"It's the poems that matter." Sam Hunt
It’s nearly impossible to be poetic when trying to describe poems – especially poems written by Sam Hunt. His life of words is written in the nation’s shoreline, upon its mountain peaks and within its valleys. The Irish “literary Sphinx”, James Joyce, once said that should his hometown of Dublin ever crumble to the ground, it could be rebuilt with his words. But the poems of Sam Hunt go beyond the reconstruction of mere mortar, brick, steel and timber – his words and live performances rebuild the soul. Like the nation he has spent his life travelling over from the tip of Cape Reinga to the Antarctic trough of Bluff – he is an ever-developing and ever-waving force. His words are no imitation of the landscape – they breathe and move to the rhythm of the drums that rumble beneath us all. When Sam Hunt speaks - you listen, and not because he is wise, but because he means what he says. That is, after all, what a poet is for. When Sam Hunt speaks the spirits of a town listen, and when he writes he listens back –
“seen men in full flight
fall victim to the light
and know one thing for certain
the whole of the story
means all of them matter
as much as the other.”
(From "Floating Poem")
As he walks on to the stage (or into a room) the stage seems to disappear - even the spotlight shining on him illuminates upon everyone in the room, and not just him alone. This is because the poems have arrived and the song is about to be sung. As Sam Hunt smiles and starts, his opening seed syllables turn into sonnets by Shakespeare with kudos to Pablo Neruda. A lady in the third row (or the lady behind the camera) will remind him of an old friend who wrote a poem, which will move him to recite words he hasn’t thought of for 30 years. He then tells us he wants to come back as a wave, not realizing he is a wave already.
Regular pub locals who are too busy living poems to study them, hold their pints tight upon the bar, as they gaze and listen to T.S. Elliot for the first time. They laugh at every swear word in between the poems – and have no idea what “T.S.” even stands for. That is the way that poetry should be, as Sam Hunt says, “You don’t need to understand a poem to love it. Poems are something that you fall in love with first - then spend a lifetime learning the meaning.”
He smiles and nods with a light in his eye as he finishes every poem. He knows it isn’t really the end at all and knows the next time he will be singing them. I’ve spent a lifetime learning Sam Hunt poems – by heart, by soul, by meaning. Like the man himself, they can’t be defined on Wikipedia, or in a review. Reviews are for performances that end – and Sam Hunt’s is constantly beginning – and Amen to that.
We had the honour of spending a day with Sam at his Northland home in the “land between two oceans” as he listened to a test pressing of his latest LP “The 9th”. The album has been recorded with NZ “guitar god for guitar atheists” David Kilgour (formerly of The Clean) and his band “The Heavy 8s”. It contains some of Sam’s best-loved anthems as well as a beautiful rendition of the legendary NZ poet James K Baxter’s “The Gunners Lament” (again - no reviews necessary). Notes, books and indeed interview questions are not needed when talking to Sam Hunt – they act as judder bars to your attention. So here are some of the words that Sam kindly said to us in between my blithering that masqueraded as something searching for meaning…
How and when did you meet Dave Kilgour?
I don’t sort of concentrate on when I meet people or how I meet them. But I met Dave on a plane – he was travelling to America to play some shows with his brother (Hamish - also of The Clean). I was booked in row 'A'… for 'Arsehole'… and Kilgour was down in row fucking 'K'. I ended up being put down in row K - and HE ended up being put in row 'A for Arsehole'. So I said to the airhostess “I think there’s been some sort of mistake here – I’m meant to be up in the row for arseholes and he’s meant to be down here in the K for Kilgour’s.” So as we were crossing paths in the aisle of an Air New Zealand 777 – or whatever they are – I said, “are you David Kilgour?” and he said “yeah”. So that’s how we first met. I was moving up to row 1A and he was moving down to row KF… for Kilgour get fucked ahaha! It’s been that way ever since!
(David) is an absolute gentleman of a man and it’s great to stir up the majick. He said that to me when we were recording the
album – he said “It’s great to stir up the majick with you”.
Why did you call the album “the 9th”?
Because not a lot of people get to live through their 9th symphony – so I wanted to do that!
You’ve recorded James K Baxter’s anthem “The Gunners Lament” – what are your earliest memories leading back to Baxter?
Again I can’t remember when we first met – I wasn’t there at the time haha! We only had about 5 or 6 times where we actually met. I do remember him calling me on the phone in 1960-something-whatever. He telephoned a neighbor of mine - Jill - when I lived in Bottle Creek. They had a thing called “a telephone” – which I didn’t have in the boat shed that I lived in at the time – so my friend Jill - who lived in another fisherman’s cottage on that shoreline - sang out to me “James K Baxter’s on the phone!”. I remember Jill loved his poems too – so it was like Jesus Christ was on the phone!
The day before I was in Baxter’s company and he invited me to join him in Jerusalem – up the Whanganui River – where he had the idea of setting up some sort of community which would sort of side-step the whole middle class ethic. I thanked him and said – “well I have to find my own Jerusalem Jim – well at least I have to go looking for it – but thank you”. Then when he rang that next day I picked up the phone at Jill’s place and he said “You know I think you’re absolutely right Sam – we’ve all got to find our own Jerusalem”. He was right on the spot in “Letter to Sam Hunt” - there’s a verse in that poem that goes,
Asking a man like Sam Hunt to name poets who he admires can be a question as open as the Northland sky. Just one key influence to Sam's life and words (the two can only be distinguished and not
separated) that he spoke about was Alistair Te Ariki Campbell. The Cook Island born (Kapiti adopted) Campbell was both friend and inspiration to Hunt, remaining a pouwhenua (or land post) for his
life and poems - a great example being Sam's tribute 'Rainbows, and a promise of snow'
I go to the river, friend,
walk along with the flow;
far as third bend,
far as I go:
remembering time goes
so very fast, so slow:
solstice and birthdays,
a promise of snow
(From "Rainbows, and a promise of snow")
'Beware the man' was a very direct early poem of yours. Has the meaning of the poem changed for you over the years?
When a poem comes along you don’t always know who is knocking at your door – but you’ve still got to go and answer the door. I’ve often said I don’t know the meaning of some of my poems – because it’s like a dream – you know – the images that are taking place. Sometimes you remember the dream – you remember not to move. You must not move – and you can start remembering the dream – and if you’re lucky you can get to your exercise book and scribble the thing down. And often weeks, years or a lifetime can go by and you can suddenly look back and go – “oh I remember where that came from!” Bit by bit – the forensics take place.
You have toured New Zealand (and the world) extensively since the 1970’s. How has your preparation for a tour changed over the years?
Always from the start I knew things had to be well organized. If I was doing shows people had to know that they were going to be on. I wasn’t just some sort of hippie wandering along – it wasn’t like that. Often back in the 70s I would get mistaken as a hippie – and I used to get quite indignant – not because I was anti-hippie – but because I wasn’t one!
No one wants a pigeonhole..... I had my own
standards. I’ll tell you who was a great help in the early days and that was Gary McCormick – he would act as MC and bring his own poems along of course. He’s never included in any NZ poetry
anthologies and yet he’s written some damn fine poems. So he would help sometimes in the early days and I still to this day have someone help me organize my tours.
Are there any tracks recorded that you left off the new album?
We’ve got another whole album to do – well an album at the very least. There’s some very new stuff that we rehearsed – again pretty much on the phone. Like the songs on the 9th – a lot of them DK recorded down the phone – and the band just worked around it. And then when we met up in Port Chalmers we had all these different versions we could do – those two versions of Sara are just one example.
I love the first version of Sara…
Well let’s listen to it again then shall we?
And that’s what we had the pleasure of doing for the rest of the day and evening – listening to Sara and Wave Song and other pieces of his 9th Symphony – back past the peaks of Black Gull Back Mountain that splits the land in two – past the estuaries, bare coasts and autumn memories of Aotearoa – through the land of the long white cloud. At the edge of the cloud stands Sam Hunt – and at the end of the wave stands his voice.
For more information on all of Sam Hunt's books and gigs visit http://samhunt.co.nz/