Man alone with his words, Ashleigh Young

Backroads: Charting a Poet’s Life
Sam Hunt
Craig Potton Publishing, $49.99,
ISBN 9781877517051

Hunt didn’t sit down at his typewriter to write this book. He sat down with his publisher and started rambling. Presented here is a one-sided transcript of the conversations – or perhaps it is two-sided and Hunt didn’t let his publisher get a word in edgeways – and it is an absorbing, beautifully produced book that captures Hunt in classic form. He really is the master of the ramble, which perhaps is a dying art in New Zealand. To ramble is to talk generously and good-humouredly about places you’ve been, people you’ve met, anything that’s captured your imagination: small towns, songs, boatsheds, dogs.

This is not a personal book, even though the publisher’s blurb tells us that it is Hunt’s first published memoir. “It’s not ‘who your girlfriend is’ or whatever,” Hunt has said in an interview. “It’s full of stuff that I thought and said. Maybe I didn’t know the word ‘memoir’ existed.”

This might frustrate some, especially as the book’s subtitle, Charting a Poet’s Life, leads us to expect more about the poet himself. (There is one pleasing revelation, though: early on, Hunt reveals that he could very well be the grandson of the Anglo-Irish novelist Joyce Cary, author of Mister Johnson and The Horse’s Mouth.) However, there is something intoxicating about following these bumpy inroads to Hunt’s past. Reading this book is as close as many of us will get to having a drink with Sam Hunt. It’s that voice! You can hear the wheezy guffaws that punctuate sentences. What punctuates the book, too, are the poems recited throughout, which provide a welcome contrast of voice to pitch against Hunt’s.

Hunt’s unconventional career has been given a lavish production by Craig Potton. There are reproductions of set lists, telegrams, letters, paintings, ancient book covers, and of course photographs, my favourite of which shows Hunt grinning as Minstrel leaps over a fence. The whole production reminds me of Hunt’s appearance on the album ENZSO, where he performed with the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra to recreate Split Enz songs, a collaboration he discusses at the end of this book. Midway through the lush orchestral interpretation of “Under the Wheel”, that unmistakable voice rasps into proceedings: “Now they all stand back and shout – go on, you creep, go on, get out … Oh my god, what are they on about?” Amidst the orchestration, the scraggly Hunt appears as a kind of heroic figure, a man alone with his words.

He comes across as a poem tycoon (or typhoon?) rather than a poet. He is full of poems – they go swirling through him like weather – but he makes a clear distinction between “poems” and “poetry”. Poetry is printed on a page, a self-conscious art; a poem has a voice that can work a whole room. Hunt’s great obsession is voice. “People sometimes become so immersed in the score – the written version of it – that they miss the real thing,” he says. “The real thing exists out there with the gods, on the top of the steeple of the church or deep in the cave.” He espouses the importance of telling the poem, taking it public.

But at times Hunt’s enthusiasm gives way to dubious theorising, such as where he argues that poems come from something beyond us, “where things like fire and electricity and women come from”. For Hunt, a poem exists before it’s written, and one must help it along, like a midwife delivering a baby. If “the man from Porlock pops in” – referring to the uninvited visitor who disturbed Coleridge as he was high on opium and writing Kubla Khan – he could unwittingly kill the poem, leaving the poet with a stillbirth on his hands. Hunt experienced this himself when, in the midst of a writing fever, he heard a knock at the door. The bloody meter man! When the ruffled Hunt returned to his desk, the poem he’d been in the middle of writing was “gone”, as if it had taken fright.

It’s entertaining stuff, but Hunt’s theories perpetuate a myth of the poet as someone struck by the mysterious force of inspiration. It’s almost as if all a poet needs to do is wait patiently and a poem will turn up, not unlike the popper-in from Porlock.

Scepticism aside, Hunt’s conviction is compelling. The man is utterly sure of himself and his process. He articulates himself with more candour that many writers could muster. And, of course, his particular theories have worked for him through numerous  volumes of poems – poems that have appeared on billboards, buses, and countless whiteboards in high schools and creative writing workshops. How could you argue with that?

Along with poems, the book is steeped in names. Hunt mulls over his friendships with Baxter, Tuwhare, Glover, Fairburn, Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Meg Campbell (yes, Meg too, but it’s basically an all-blokes club). When friendships sour – as they did momentarily with publisher Alister Taylor over an unpaid bill – Hunt doesn’t go into detail. Criticism and uncertainty don’t come easily; high praise does: “He was a great friend”; “We were great mates”; “It’s a great poem, a wonderful poem” – these are all phrases you’ll see often.

I found myself wondering what Hunt would have to say if he were forced out of his comfort zone. What if he had to talk about women poets (“dear old Meg” aside) or poets emerging today? Unfortunately, Hunt isn’t going to talk about anything he doesn’t want to talk about. He’ll say a poem instead. The book respects this, and provides a flattering portrait of the scraggly wordsmith we’ve always known. He can be persuasive and insightful, irritatingly vague and contradictory – but what shines out is his irrepressible energy for “resurrecting” poems, bringing them off dusty shelves and to an audience. This book is a fine testament to that.


Ashleigh Young won last year’s Landfall essay competition.

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Posted in Memoir, Non-fiction
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