Sam Hunt CNZM, QSM is unique among New Zealand poets in his ability to recite not only his own poems but those of Yeats, Baxter, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell and Dylan Thomas, to name just a few, in pubs from Kaipara to Bottle Creek and hold audiences spell-bound.
His latest book of poems, Salt River Songs, is being launched on July 4th to mark his 70th birthday. Death is a recurring theme but it’s far from a gloomy collection. A poem dedicated to his friend, the late documentary photographer, Glenn Jowitt begins:
Death called by the other day –
No one was home at the time,
A note. “Sorry I missed you’,
Stuck under the front door mat.
Sam Hunt recently sat down with Sunday Morning’s Wallace Chapman and talked about his life and influences and the poems that tumble out of him. He knows more than 1000 poems off by heart – a girlfriend once took it upon herself to count them, and a professor of psychology has dedicated a chapter in a textbook to the poet’s prodigious memory.
Sam recalled that his friend, the poet, James K Baxter died far too young.
“He was only 46. Only a boy… he wasn’t any boy when it came to writing poems. He was a big, big…..Do Kauri trees write poems? He was a big Kauri tree,” Sam says with his trade-mark laugh.
It’s tempting to speculate on what type of tree Sam would be. It would be popular, that’s for sure, and instantly recognisable, as happy in a rural as an urban setting and never far from the sea… a Pohutakawa maybe?
Sam Hunt’s never lived far from the sea. One of his first addresses as a young man was Bottle Creek, Paremata. The late Michael King recalls in his book Being Pakeha Now how he wrote a letter to the Post Office arguing that Bottle Creek was a name with historical pedigree and deserved official recognition. It wasn’t true but the fact that one of New Zealand’s most respected historians was prepared to say it was true says something about Sam Hunt’s charm.
He likes to say his personal “road code” is: “Tell the story. Tell it true – charm it crazy.” And that’s the strap line to his new book: Salt River Songs.
There’s a poetry to Sam’s choice of addresses over the years. From Bottle Creek Sam moved to Battle Hill. He says he graduated from a boatshed to tree hut – his description of his current two-storey house that looks over totara trees to the Kaipara harbour.
And if there’s a theme other than death in Salt River Dreams it’s the Kaipara. His poem Six sestets begins:
A skyful of cloud breaks up,
scatters out to seam
Gives the sun fair go.
I can do with the company
pine for the sea:
the gravel road I’m on,
the next corner
left past the cabbage tree –
and keeping up, my shadow -
is all I need to know
Sam Hunt’s shadow - and a lot more - is known and loved from one end of the country to the other. Happy birthday Sam.