Blog: Sam Hunt talks death and poems
'Death is prowling the town'SARAH DUNN
The baby seal book club
New Zealand Poetry, Part Two: An Interview with Sam Hunt
Sam Hunt is one of New Zealand's best-loved poets.
After giving his first public performance at 16 to either the East Coast Bays or Mairangi Bay Players, Sam has been performing his poems in pubs, school halls, libraries, rock venues and theatres around the country to great acclaim for 50 years now.
He has recently been awarded a Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement, and is connected to the Nelson region through Craig Potton Publishing, through whom his most recent book, the Knucklebones collection, is available.
What are you working on at the moment?
I'm working on my epitaph. It's not my choice when I die, but there have just been certain things that have happened lately to make me more aware than ever that death is prowling. There's just a feeling, not of uneasiness but excitement, almost. Death is prowling the town.
I've been writing the Salt River Songs - click here to read - and I've just realised as I've been working on them – rather, as they've been writing themselves- that's in a sense what it is. I suppose if there's such a genre as the epitaph genre, this would be in the epitaph genre.
Has death been on your mind in the past?
Yeah, I'm like any human. You see death all around you, you see death every day. It's one of those big subjects.
Certainly, I've been aware of death, but it becomes more real. A friend of mine who's four years younger than me died last week, and you know, he's only four years [younger] but it always seemed [more] like 40 years. Suddenly, he's dead, he's gone where I haven't gone. What's it like over there?
I remember my father, he was 60 when I was born so when I was 10 he was 70. He died when he was 90.
That's a good run.
I remember his saying, “Gosh, I don't like reading the death notices. I've got too many friends on there each morning.” I can appreciate those thoughts now a hell of a lot more than I did when I was 10 years old. The whole thing seemed to go on forever.
Years ago I wrote a poem, it was when I turned 40 and it's called Hitting Forty, and the last line is something about “the road goes on forever''.
That's what I said when I was 40, but at 66 I would say the road doesn't go on forever. It never has, but there's a little bit left.
When you write, do you write towards something in particular?
I do, but it's not conscious. I realise it later, that that's what was happening. It's very much like waking from a dream, and we are talking about the same country [as dreaming]. You remember the dream, and you think, “Where the f— did that come from?”
If you write it down and make it so you won't lose it, you remember more and more until you've got some incredible drama that's played out in your head while you've been sleeping. I don't know if you've ever done this in a concentrated way, but I find as the day goes on, you keep on getting reminded of bits that came into the dream and where they fit into the big picture.
The making of a poem, along with parenthood, is one of the most mysterious things that has happened to me.
Of course, within 24 hours of having had your baby in your arms, you know all about it. You know its history, you know everything, or you think you do.
Do you find yourself visiting the same country, in that sense, as you were when you first started writing?
No. Different territory. Across the border somewhere. I must have been asleep! As you go through your life, things change. Your expectations for a relationship may change a lot.
Are you talking about your relationship with yourself or with other people?
With yourself, with other people, the whole thing. I've got all my exercise books going back to when I was about 16, so I've basically got 50 years of stuff that I've written. I don't see myself as a writer at all- writing is the last part of the act, almost. It's a childbirth. You've been carrying the bloody thing for nine months, people forget that.
To get things happening I often do scribble, just for the physical act of scribbling. Writing some lines down that come into my head, sometimes it takes you nowhere and sometimes you end up with a good lyric or poem.
So I understand you've been a bit of an experimenter with music and art; other mediums as well as poetry.
I wouldn't call myself an experimenter. I suppose it is experimenting, but I'm not a scientist. I sometimes end up working with people whose music I really love, especially David Kilgour and the Heavy Eights. We're doing a new album together with my lyrics, I'm doing the lead vocals on this one.
Is it a different process with them, getting inspiration?
It's not quite like the lyric of a song, but they are songs. You'll have to listen to it when it comes out, you can make up your own mind what it is. We're performing at the next WOMAD. I've done stuff with Barry Saunders, he's the lead singer of The Warratahs. We've done things like Fire Song and Cape Turnagain, [although] not as many as we'd like to have done. It's just a matter of getting us all in the same place at the same time.
My main 40-hour-a-week job is doing my show on my own, and telling my poems. That's my job. Sometimes I may be dressed up with the NZSO or Split Enz or the Heavy Eights, and that's on a different day.
Do you think New Zealanders are more accepting of lyrics and music than poetry?
No, I wouldn't say that at all. I wouldn't even think that. People who come to my shows, I don't know who they are but there's enough of them. The feedback I get is that people certainly get it.
I don't think everyone in the room gets it - I don't know who gets it, that's not my decision- but I do know that a lot of people do get my poems. Some people may get over my poems or get past them, but right then at that moment, they're getting my poem. Hopefully right between the eyes.
Is it an odd feeling, having people feel like they understand you personally to that extent?
If I may quote Mr Bob Dylan on the subject, he says “A thousand faces at my feet, but all I see is dark eyes.” Going out and delivering your poems to a decent-sized audience [can involve speaking to] anything between five and 5,000 or more.
There's a lovely line about the five from Ezra Pound, who's a contemporary of TS Eliot. One of his cantos ends, “Oh world, my poems were written for five people. Oh world, I pity you, you do not know these five people.” That's how he says it, it's great, he spits it out as if to say “F— you!”
People send back different vibes. If you do a show at the same venue over two or three nights with a full house each night, as sure as night does follow day, those three audiences will all be quite different. It's extraordinary. With an audience you're not dealing with a dead body, you're dealing with very much a living body made up of many parts.
Do you find it's quite a different skillset, writing and compiling your poems and then making them accessible for an audience?
Well it's not for me because that's my background. That's what people in my family going back a long way have done. If it weren't in my genes, I don't know. I'm not saying that I did it because of that, but it didn't seem foreign to me.
I always remembered poems when I found a poem by somebody I liked. The fact that I didn't forget them made such an impact on me, I knew them straight away. To some extent, that memory thing doesn't happen as much now as it did when I was younger, but it still does happen.
A woman called Sarah Broom sent me a poem called Birdsong a few years, and that poem hit me. It was phenomenal.
Do you read many contemporary poets?
Yes, I'm interested in what's going on. I don't read the magazines and things but people send me stuff. People who I look forward to hearing from are people whose poems I've come across and liked their work, like Sarah.
Can you name some other favourites?
There's a good young guy, Vaughan Gunson. “Son of a gun”, I call him.
What stands out about Sarah and Vaughan's work?
They've both got a voice to them. When all you're reading is the score on the page, you've got to make sure you give it a proper chance, but you don't have to look too hard. I can say that when I first read a poem by Vaughan Gunson or Sarah Broom or lots of other people I could mention, I knew it straight away. There was a poem in the room and that poem had a voice which you recognise as its own voice.
That's wonderful when you come across that, that's almost as good as when you've done it yourself.
Who are your favourite poets?
Oh, there's too many to name. Pablo Neruda, and Yeats goes on a lot in my head. I grew up with a lot of Yeats from my mother, she introduced me to the early Yeats and as I got a bit older, I started discovering what the academics call the middle Yeats and the late Yeats. I always talk about the “late great Yeats”.
There's so many, really, it's just impossible. You can talk about poets, but in the end for me it gets down to talking about not poetry or poets, but poems. If they're any good they'll speak for themselves.
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