Sam Hunt releases his 22nd poetry book (he thinks)

Sam Hunt turned 70 on July 4.
Tim Rose and Jym Best

Sam Hunt turned 70 on July 4.

Sam Hunt's life works in seven year cycles, a fact he accepts has nothing to do with him.

He's been living in his remote treetop home overlooking the Arapoa River in Kaipara for 14 years, so change is a coming, with milestones already appearing.

For a start, he's turning 70 on 4 July: a ripe age for a man who has danced with life to a rapid beat and grabbed it by the throat. Words, wine, women and song have played the tune to his often vagabond existence but the bass has been the poems. They're his lifeblood, his purpose and hundreds of them dance at the forefront of his extraordinary memory.

His conversation often segues to quotations to define his points: James K Baxter, Ezra Pound and Yeats featured in our 40 minutes together.

Sam Hunt in 1983. Poet Sam Hunt lived at the number 5 Cambourne boatshed in the 1990s.

Sam Hunt in 1983. Poet Sam Hunt lived at the number 5 Cambourne boatshed in the 1990s.

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But his swearing and sometimes devilish laughter reminds you that the romantic and soulful scribe can be a brambly and cantankerous character.

When he's not being disarmingly frank, he's intensely private and lives happily alone in his treetop home. He's single and not interested in domesticity. "I've never felt the urge to marry someone just because I loved them."

And although he has friends over, including the "odd girlfriend", if you attempt to enter his space uninvited you could be thrown out on your ear.

"Sometimes I go to the door and say, sorry I'm not at home. My mother used to do that. Anyone who pops in here pops off pretty f***ing fast."

About a year ago one person - perhaps a fan - dared to come onto his property with a camera. Hunt snatched it from them and they fled.

Entertainers Sam Hunt (left) with Gary McCormick
Dean MacKenzie

Entertainers Sam Hunt (left) with Gary McCormick

"I've still got the camera. They're probably still mustering up the courage to come and get it back. If they're reading this article the answer is no - you can f*** off."


But outside the crabby shell (he is a Cancer) is a sensitive soul who is celebrated as New Zealand's most well-known poet.

The call to perform in front of an audience is as strong, if not stronger, than ever, says Hunt.
Simon Darby

The call to perform in front of an audience is as strong, if not stronger, than ever, says Hunt.

His awards have been numerous with a Queen's Service Medal in 1986, a Companion of the NZ Order of Merit in 2010 and the Prime Minister's Poetry Award in 2012. He's a national icon.

Hunt is curious, delighted by a good natter and sentimental. He's also deeply spiritual about his work, although talks in circles to avoid the term, always coming back to poems (often not one of his own) to describe it.

Like many artists, he concludes he may be a conduit for his work: his inspirations feel divine.

"I'm not religious in any conventional sense but I do believe in the divine and I'm quite often touched by it - I'm blown away by it. I think, where the f*** did that come from?"

Writing poetry is only one element for Hunt - his works are geared for performance - who's famous for his unique recitations in his stovepipe trousers, flicking his hands and toe-tapping his shiny boots to emphasise the poem's cadence and rhythm. He's got a strong bond with his audience, and is known to have a drink or two with them after his shows.

His love of poetry came from his mother, Betty, a character herself. She was 87 when she passed on, recalls Hunt. "She drove herself to the hospital, parking illegally as she always did went into the hospital and announced, 'My name is Betty and I've come to die.' And she did - about 12 hours later.

"After that I inherited her car and the parking fines."


After being expelled school at 16, Hunt spent time driving trucks and attending university but poetry became his career in the late '60s. He quickly rose to prominence alongside a rat pack of NZ poets, including Denis Glover, Alistair Campbell and James K Baxter. Hunt was particularly influenced by Baxter, who wrote many poems for his friend, including Letter to Sam Hunt, full of advice for the then young poet. Sam often performs Baxter's poems at his shows.

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"His voice infuses me."

Though he's toured the centres and backblocks of New Zealand extensively – and lived in his beloved boatsheds everywhere from Whangaroa to Wellington – the call to perform is still strong, with his shows becoming more intense as times goes by.

Sam Hunt with actor Sam Neill.

Sam Hunt with actor Sam Neill.

"Quite often when you've done a show it's like being born into a new day. It feels like you've gone through a time warp. Like Yeats says, praising all of the most exalted art forms, everything happens in a blaze of light.

Tell the story, tell it true, charm it crazy  - (a Hunt aphorism)

"It's not enough just to tell the story. Or even telling it true. You've got to have the old consecration bit, the moment of mystery."


Salt River Songs is his latest book - his 22nd, he thinks - which is part of a body of work first published in 1963. Though he's proudly awaiting the "birth of this baby, with a gas bottle", the books are born from his shows.

"The book feels like a milestone, not in an achievement sense, but as a signpost. It's a milestone that tells you where the next pub is, said Sir Thomas Hardy."

Between bouts of channelling the divine, inspiration can run dry and if he ever feels "barren" sometimes he has to knuckle down and sharpen the pencils anyway.

"It's the first time I've ever admitted this but I do sit down and think, well f***, to write, I've gotta write. I'll start scribbling and more often than not, the dam will burst, and it's there."

But life is not always about whimsical musings and introspective pondering. Daily routines anchor our days, and Hunt's no different. It's changed now that Alf, his 18-year-old son who lived with him until recently left home last year. There's a bit of empty nest syndrome happening, Hunt agrees.

How does he fill up the mundane moments?

Artist Dick Frizzell (right) in 2012 with his new art work/collaboration with Sam Hunt.
John Nicholson

Artist Dick Frizzell (right) in 2012 with his new art work/collaboration with Sam Hunt.

"I take drugs!" he hoots. "I drink a lot and smoke northern bud. Tell them that - that's true, although I am partly joking."


The booze has at times been a battle for Hunt. A seven-year stint of sobriety from the late '90s on ended with him returning to the bottle, declaring that he was comfortable with his alcoholism. It works for him and suits his rock 'n' roll persona, even if it's a little cliched.

Over the years music and his poems have united in his "songs for the tone deaf". He's featured as a vocalist with many New Zealand musicians, including the Warratahs, Split Enz, Gareth Farr and the NZSO. He's also worked with David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights on two albums.

As for the next cycle? He hopes the next seven-year period echoes the previous two. He wants to sing and perform more. "I can't imagine doing much else."

Just last night, he created two poems - "they floated in like motes of light" - but woke with no recollection of writing them.

"I just saw them on the table this morning, as if someone else else had written them for me. I love that."

He acknowledges his life has been full of beautiful, unexplained moments: the kind where you can't remember a beautiful poem you've just written, or the moments you feel a connection with people.

Still trying to avoid the "corny" aphorisms, Hunt says is full of gratitude for his life, and credits his "squad of guardian angels" who look after him.

"You need someone out there looking after you. It's a funny world but I enjoy it - I've got to say it's getting better and better."

And if you've already wandered down the cheesy track, as a romantic poet no doubt should, you can't forget love.

"I love lots of things today. I love the fire that's burning here, and I love the doors that are wide open and looking down the Arapoa River. There's a slow wind in the Totara tops - I love that."

"The loves are too many to name. Too many. Aamene." - Too Many To Name, Salt River Songs

Salt River Songs is published by Potton & Burton and is published 4 July. RRP $24.99

 - Stuff


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