As one of New Zealand’s larger than life and undoubtedly most rock n roll poets, Sam Hunt is a rare commodity that has always remained somewhat unconventional, an essentialist and unashamedly honest in his plethora of work that spans more than forty decades.
Born Samuel Percival Maitland Hunt, July 4th 1946 in Castor Bay, Auckland, he has one other sibling, an older brother, Jonathan Hunt and between them, an older step brother, Stephen (from Percy’s first marriage) Their father, Percival Hunt, known to friends as Percy is remembered as a sharply dressed, quick witted barrister, who was sixty years old when Sam was born, while his mother, Joan was thirty years old and a huge influence on Sam, who became interested in poetry at a young age. Growing up with unconventional parents with their own love of music, the arts and poetry it was of no surprise that Sam was a chip off the old block, despite his Roman Catholic upbringing, which also left a mark on the budding poet.
From 1953- 1963, Sam attended the Catholic St Peter’s College in Auckland where he excelled in running, diving and writing. At nine, his earliest memory is of school is being strapped by a harsh nun as punishment, when he raised his hand to ask, “Whether the same God looked after all the other universes”. A rather reasonable question he thought, and a question he still has no answer to at his now seventy three years of age. At fourteen, he was openly mocked by fellow classmates when he stuttered reciting a poem by James Barter, an experience that lead him to express adolescence pressures and his idiosyncrasies in future works, but interestingly also lead him to briefly join the Christian Brother’s Authoritarianism and Puratism while at St Peters. Another similar incident around the same age also gave way to punishment when he recited another poem in class from New Zealand poet, James K Baxter that had sexual imagery. With Sam’s emerging style of dress, pronounced teenage stutter and gait, popularity from fellow peers was not a high priority.
Nevertheless, with a natural affinity for the written word, much of Sam Hunt’s earliest poetry was published in the annual magazines of St Peters where much of his success and influence is attributed to his English master and poet, Ken Arvidson, who tried counselling him against leaving school in 6th grade which worked for a time, before Sam was eventually asked to leave St Peter’s at the end of his 6th form year. Sam has said that if it hadn’t of been for Mr Arvidson, he would not have lasted as long as he did and credited him for introducing the works of great poets such as Gordan Challis. During his final year at St Peters in 1963 and as a final farewell, Mr Arvidson endowed a poetry prize to Sam and gained him University Entrance. Although ambiguous these days about his time at St Peter’s, one of Sam’s most celebrated poems, ‘Brother Lynch’ is about a teacher at St Peter’s who was sympathetic towards young Sam and the school’s annual literature competition is named after Sam Hunt where he has acted as a judge in passing years.
After leaving school, the years between 1964-1967 were a restless, nomadic time for Sam who drifted between Auckland and Wellington where he attended universities in both cities and spent brief periods truck driving and panel beating, describing this time in his life in his poem, ‘Rainbows, and a promise of snow.’
After his graduation from Teachers College, he taught briefly at Mana College in Porirua, and in 1967, not long after his first official published piece in New Zealand’s oldest extant literacy magazines, Landfall, he decided that poetry was to be his permanent vocation and was one of New Zealand’s younger generation of poets who were interested in daily linguistic use and natural units of speech, rather than a academic form of poetic speech, resulting in a lasting emphasis of meaning and feel and lifelong interest in public performances. Adding to that his nomadic lifestyle which saw him live in various location around Pauatahanui, Porirua and a boatshed in Paremata, giving life to the vividly depicted poems, ‘Bottle Creek’, ‘Battle hill’, and ‘Death’s Corner’. The latter, formally a farmhouse owned by an actual Mr Death)
In his most prolific writing period throughout the 1970’s through to the 1990’s, Sam preferred the public performance of his poetry and from a young age has been able to reach a wider audience, with his poetry largely based off his own experiences in his single subject with a number of his works sharing common themes and characters. With uncomplicated lyrics and colloquialisms, he is a lead performer of his own narrative with razor sharp observation in his words and his unmistakable rich rumble like tones in recital. With a similar style to other New Zealand poets and playwrights, Denis Glover, Alistair Campbell and of course, James K Baxter, not only were they influences and personal friends, but Baxter in particular was of great importance to Sam and provided advice to him in the form of a poem, ‘Letters to Sam Hunt’ and just one of many poets, he frequently recites on and off stage claiming to of committed at least two hundred of them from memory. He has a high regard for other twentieth century English language poets, like Dylan Thomas and a passion for foreign language poets such as the Italian, Salvatore Quasimodo and the Hungarian poet, Jozsef Attila and an admiration for Bob Dylan. As well as his own poetry, he is known to recite from poets works whether they are famous, or obscure, citing the quality of the poems is more important to him.
In addition to his knack for the Kiwi vernacular, his distinctive appearance which seems to be frozen in time throughout decades, further cements him as one of our most widely recognised poets. A tall lanky figure, even in his seventies now, he still sports drainpipe jeans (Foxton straights as he calls them) with vests and open shirts, sometimes a colourful scarf or tie if the occasion calls, and his long grey hair windswept and interesting around his weathered face, often tapping his fingers or flicking his hand with occasional dance steps of concentration to his poetic beat onstage.
He has received many accolades for his contribution to poetry throughout his life and his ability to connect with audiences awarded him a Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University in 1975, and as a result he spent the following year teaching in Dunedin. In 1985, he was awarded the Queen’s Service Medal for community service, and appointed a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to poetry in the 2010 Queen’s Birthday Honours List. In 2012, he received a Prime Minister’s award for Literacy Achievement and in 2015 partnered with fine wine retailer and distributor, La Cantina Wine to launch his own range of wines simply known as, ‘The Sam Hunt range of wines’ with each of the five varieties featuring his poetry on the label and a QR code that enables users to listen to Hunt, New Zealand Musician David Kilgour, and the band, The Heavy 8’s perform excerpts from his poems.
After a nearly ten year hiatus from publishing works in the past, Sam has continued to produce new poems since 2007 and has continued to be a central figure of literature since the publication of his first mature poetry book works, From Bottle Creek- 1967-1969 published in 1969 when he was just twenty three years old, with his combined book sales throughout his years far exceeding those of most other New Zealand poets.
After moving to Waiheke Island in 1997 for a few years, these days, Sam has called Kaipara in Northland home for the last sixteen years, overlooking the Arapaoa River of Kaipara Harbour. While he still writes and publishes music and poetry, with his recent collection of poetry, Sam Hunt, Coming to It, released in 2018, he officially gave up touring a few years ago stating he’d had enough of airports and hotels and “strangers thinking they knew you” although he still misses the actual shows, these days he is content to sit and listen for the poems and enjoy his self -confessed ‘Carthusian life’.