Sam Hunt: Telling the story, telling it true, charming it crazy

In February, 2013 I had the best day of my journalistic career. I travelled with my publishing and editorial assistants, Gabriela Guedes and Meg Williams, to the Kaipara farm of famed Kiwi poet Sam Hunt. It was an unforgettable day, during which Sam verbally abused a woman over lunch because she was speaking too loudly on the phone, and after lunch asked me to pick up his son from the school bus drop-off because he (Sam) was too pissed. Much of the interview was conducted on his back deck, which we shared with a big marijuana plant. It was the closest I’ve ever come to a genuine ‘Withnail and I’ moment. The story, and never-before-published photos, are reproduced below, for your enjoyment:

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Luncheoning with Sam Hunt at his local haunt, soup, bread and sauvignon blanc. Second bottle in, Sam suggesting I take the colour out of the photos so he doesn’t look like an old drunk. His cheeks are flushed all right, and he’s talking a little louder than he needs to.

But it’s all right, because he’s big Sam Hunt, and the owners of the roadhouse/cafe love to serve the celebrity, NZ’s premiere poet, his soup and wine. You don’t get that many celebrities out here, ‘eleven gunshots from humanity’.

And the tourists love it too. There’s a table of them behind us, and they recognise Sam—their conspiratorial heads moved in towards each other and their voices soften. They nod towards us and I half expect one of them to come over with a copy of Sam’s latest book.

Except they don’t because one of them answers a call on her mobile phone. It’s a call from the office. You can tell, because she’s suddenly talking very loudly indeed and putting on a high and mighty professional voice—either because the line’s bad, or because she’s slightly deaf, or because she wants Sam to hear how important she is.

But Sam isn’t impressed. In fact, he’s severely pissed off. And he interrupts his story to crane his neck towards the woman like a seagull defending a chip—down low over his soup it goes, then up high (he’s a big man and can sit very high), scowling behind his sunglasses.

And he starts to swear, beneath his breath, but so loudly that the woman can barely hear herself speak. So she talks louder, until she’s nearly shouting into the phone. So Sam talks louder still, and there are words coming out of his mouth you don’t expect someone of Sam Hunt’s iconic status to utter, particularly over soup.

And it strikes me that this situation could go off at any moment. But instead of relishing the thought (a picture of Sam chucking a bowl of soup across the verandah of a roadhouse in the middle of nowhere might be deemed a near scoop) I’m cringing with discomfort.

And I think it’s because of this: being with Sam Hunt for any length of time feels like a hazardous exercise. It’s volatile, unpredictable. If he knows the conventions he certainly doesn’t abide by them. In fact, he does the fingers at them.

He’s not loopy, or unhinged, or aggressive. But it’s like standing on the edge of a jetty in blustery conditions. It’s wildly exciting but you never quite know whether you’re about to be blown off into the waves.

So, it’s no surprise when Sam calms down (once the phone call has ended) and starts to talk about the one guy he most connected with in his life, the person he says he most got along with.

And it turns out that he’s talking about Philippe Pettit, the wire walker who walked between the World Trade Centre towers in 1974, the subject of the lauded documentary Man on Wire (which Sam hasn’t yet seen).

Sam met Pettit in 1973 when they shared a hotel in Sydney, where Pettit was preparing for his wire walk across the towers of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

The meeting forms the backstory to Sam’s poem, It’s Rain Today in Sydney, which also happens to be the poem that contains one of Sam’s most oft-quoted phrases to describe what he does: ’… telling the story, telling it true, charming it crazy.’ 

Extraordinary how this, Sam’s ‘road code’ if you like, was written following an encounter with a man as extraordinary as Pettit. It’s almost poetic.

I never would have 

dreamt it, that words — 

the telling them —

could lead to this

this charmed crazed day.

‘We would spend many an afternoon up on the roof of this hotel,’ Sam tells us in his high-brow accent, through a tangle of incomplete sentences. 

‘As it says in the poem, the last line of the poem is, “Looking down onto city streets, Goulburn and Elizabeth”—so it was on the corner of Goulburn and Elizabeth Streets. And when—whatever this French guy’s name was—the way he prepared … we talked about love, and it was lovely.

‘And it made sense because I, up until then I don’t think, apart from maybe Hone Tuwhare, I don’t think I’ve really worked with a poet who put as much importance on performance—of telling the word, making the word flesh, as he did. 

‘But there was a lot more going on than just a man walking along a wire. Oh, it was major. They all stayed downstairs in lower rooms, they used to come and join us sometimes.’ 

When I put to Sam that Man on Wire depicts Pettit as an egomaniac whose adrenaline-fuelled journey to the edge ends up destroying his closest friendships, Sam nods again, as if to say, ‘That’s him.’

‘Yep. Very much so. I’m not surprised, either, that it happened, because that was happening when I got to know him over that two weeks or three weeks—definitely.’

And then Sam says: ‘And I mean you do, you know, sometimes … I don’t know … you get asked …’ And what he’s saying is that he gets it—gets the addiction to the buzz, and the commitment to going to the edge that sacrifices even those closest to you.

And that’s when I feel that I finally get Sam Hunt—and when I most understand why sitting beside him is exposing me to great risk. 

There is something of Philippe Pettit in Sam. That same greatness, the same combustible mix of genius and fragility, that same sense that humanity in all its corporeality is too finite to contain his brilliance.

When I put this to Sam, he nods again.

There’s a great gulf between walking a tightrope from one tower to the next and performing your poetry in a public setting, but for Sam it’s a buzz that is no less addictive. No less dangerous.

‘Tightrope walker—that is a sort of indication of the job description. It’s a tightrope, you know, and you can’t lose it. I mean, I’ve done shows where I’ve lost… I’m either too drunk or not interesting. Sometimes when you do a show and you know you’ve blown it, somebody comes rushing in the back, saying “Best performance you’ve done!” But you know, you know it’s not the best performance you could have done. At the same time you don’t always know, and that’s the other quite humbling thing about it—you don’t always know.’ 

Sam speaks of performing as ‘word become flesh’. Sam’s speech is marked throughout by biblical or spiritual allusions, but this one is particularly revealing. It’s a reference to the first few lines in the Gospel of John, in which the writer describes Jesus as ‘word (or God) become flesh’. 

That Sam sees his poetry as ‘word’, as a voice that speaks from somewhere else, brings into focus his innate belief that poetry is somehow transcendent, and transcending.

But his focus on that word becoming flesh—on performing his poetry from a stage, in venues like Ponsonby’s Long Room, for example, where Sam performed recently, speaks to his conviction that ‘word’ belongs in the corporeal realm; that images, ideas, meaning, take on flesh and act out. Word needs to be heard, needs to stir hearts, and needs to be grounded in everyday reality.

It’s why, when I ask whether Sam is tired of the ‘edge’, he says: ‘No. No. Shit, no. The thing I’m over is the travel, which I used to love—the motels. And I find it very, very tiring. But when it’s show time, eight o’clock or whatever time, it all makes sense, it all makes sense—all the fucking around in the airport, having to fuss about with my microphone stands and extra baggage.

‘I’ve always heard poems. I’ve often gone back to the score later to find out how it works, but certainly for me telling the poem, making the word flesh, fleshing it out, is what it’s about.’

For Sam, it happens the other way round too. The flesh becomes word. Meaning that Sam writes poetry about the most ordinary things, but which upon later reflection point to greater meanings.

As an example he cites his poem Tomorrow or Today No.7.

‘It’s one of the simplest poems I’ve written, but in a way one of the heaviest poems I’ve ever written. And I’m pleased to have written it. In this case, it’s a flagpole that tells me two things (whether it’s halfmast or full) whether a local has died or a local hasn’t died, and which way the wind’s blowing. 

‘It couldn’t be much simpler.’

His poem, Beware the man, is another example of imagery through which greater implications are refracted (a word Sam hadn’t considered before we suggested it to him, but which he latches onto immediately—just in case the fact that Sam Hunt is borrowing words from The Garden is missed!)

‘[Beware the Man] later became an anthem for certain people. When I wrote it I was not trying to write a political poem, it was about a bloke along the beach who wanted to make me a hat. He’d done a job in a warehouse and he had stolen a whole lot of leather—very clever fellow—and he wanted to make me a hat.

‘And he had all these different colours, and he said to me, “What colour hat would you like, sir? I’d like to make you one.” And I said, “Oh thanks!”And he said, “what colour would you like?” And I said “Black”. So, he measured my head, and he said “What colour would you like?” And I said “Oh look, I’d like a black hat, if that’s ok.” And he said, “Well, look, I’m having the black hat so how about I make you any other colour?”

‘So, I went home and I wrote a poem about that—I’ll say the poem, it’s very short.”

Beware the man who tries to fit you out

In his idea of a hat

Dictating the colour and the shape of it.

He takes your head and carefully measures it

Says ’Of course black’s out’.

He sees himself in the big black hat.

So you may be a member of the act

He makes for you your special coloured hat.

Beware! He’s fitting you for more than that.

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Driving back to Sam’s place, a bush hideaway on the other side of the Kaipara Harbour from Auckland, we talk about what love is to a poet who has never been married. Has he, for example, ever been in love?

‘Yes, I have and I remain in love—not always with the same person.’

Are you saying love is a constant state?

‘I wouldn’t know enough about it to know. I mean, all forms of love can take [the form of] infatuation. I mean you can love your dog, you love your child—I’m in love with my children for obvious reasons. But in terms of living with somebody because I love them, I mean a woman—living with a woman because I love her … I’ve never really felt the need to. I’ve never been married, for example, I’ve never been interested in marriage.’

Not even in a de facto situation?

‘No. No, it’s like when you’re in a hotel and you ring reception to find out what town you’re in, I quite like it. I’ve never felt the need to be, for any reason, to be tied, or for them to be tied to me. I feel a bit trapped that way—I don’t want to trap anyone.’  

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Sam has two sons—Tom, who is a journalist with the Dominion Post and has just made Sam a grandfather, and Alf, who is 15 and lives with Sam.

I’m about to meet Alf, because Sam has opened a bottle of chianti and is well beyond the limit, even—especially—for a school pick-up at the end of a gravel track.

So, fair play to Sam for having the sense not to drive. But what does a complete stranger say to convince the son of an interviewee, as he’s stepping off the school bus, that he’s bona fide?

’Tell him you’re the local paedophile,’ says Sam, chuckling. So, I give it a go once Alf is in the car, thinking perhaps it’s their code. Apparently though it’s not, because Alf seems ready to leap from the car until he spots a copy of his dad’s book Chords on the dashboard.

There’s an uncomfortable silence as we drive, and not just because Alf isn’t sure who I am. It’s because of the surplus information I have about Alf—not secretive stuff, but information I’ve been given by Sam, which renders any real questions to Alf a little redundant.

Earlier in the day, I asked Sam what led to Alf, some four years earlier when Alf was 11, joining his dad in the bush?

‘I was seeing a lot of him. His mother and I never really intended … well, I never really intended living with her. So I was sort of a weekend father. Then when he was about 11, circumstances were such that he came to live with me, and it’s been great. 

‘It’s not without its … As any parent of a 15-year-old knows, at times it can be quite freaky. But he’s good, he’s very, very good. And he’s got friends that when I’ve got to go away and rob a bank or sometimes do a show now and again—do a few shows—he’s got places where he can stay.‘

Did life change when he came to live with you?

‘It did change. I wrote a number of poems—there’s one called Blessed the Fruit, and another one I quoted from before—11 Runes (for Alf, turning 11.’

VII

Alive, Alf, to live

clear of any city;

live more than five

gunshots from humanity

VIII

Seems for the first time I’m

close enough up to tune

old words to a rhyme

To tell you the eighth rune.

IX

Three more, too, let’s say

a rune a year doe the kit!

Let’s keep it that way

till one of us can’t make it.

X

When that does happen,

I’ll tell you what, Alf,

when the big doors don’t open

and things fall off the shelf

XI

I’ll give what I’ve got 

to see you through

and if I’m not

there, I’ll be waiting for you.

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It’s close to four in the afternoon. For almost five hours, Sam has been quoting poetry—not just lines of poetry, but entire poems. And not just his own work, but that of Yeats, Cummings, James K Baxter, Quasimodo, Ted Hughes, Tom Gunn, Conrad Atkins. 

In between, he’s been drinking, laughing, flirting. He demands that my assistant keep her legs in NZ. He gives away books, pours wine, tells stories. In other words, his performance of ‘word’ is continual. Poetry isn’t something he does. It’s what he is, down to a cellular level.

Finally, he puts on a CD recording of Dylan Thomas speaking about poetry, a speech he, Sam, is able to recite in large measure. And as he listens he swoons, chuckles, guffaws, closes his eyes and groans, compels us to join him in his joy.

And that’s how we leave him—a glass of red in his hand, Dylan Thomas on the stereo, Alf in his room. 

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In the documentary Man on Wire, Philippe Pettit, as he is preparing to walk a wire across the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, compares what he does to poetry—indeed, he becomes known as the poet of the sky.

In a voiceover, Pettit says, ‘I started as a young, self-taught wire walker, to dream of not so much conquering the universe, but as a poet, conquering beautiful stages.’

That poet is Sam Hunt.

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