Possibly New Zealand’s best-loved living poet, Sam Hunt is hunkered down in glorious isolation on the Kaipara Harbour, not missing much except the local store, writes Colin Hogg.
The phone still works inside Sam Hunt’s bubble though there’s an infernal clicking on the line. It’s from the electric fences that proliferate in his part of the country – which is adjacent to the back of beyond, of course, given that our best-known poet has always preferred to be slightly outside of all the action, preferably somewhere sparsely-populated and near salty water.
He has been living, for 20-odd years now, a few kilometres outside the little town of Paparoa on the northern edge of the Kaipara Harbour, a couple of hours’ drive from Auckland – though driving’s out of the question since the coronavirus arrived and changed everything.
Well, maybe not everything for someone like Sam, whose life in lockdown is more of an adjustment than a monumental rearrangement, even if he’s not getting out like he used to. Really, he’s not getting out at all, riding it out at home alone, fully supplied for all his needs.
How big is your bubble? I ask.
“Let me look around,” he says. I can tell he’s looking out the window. “There’s quite a lot of land involved. It’s fairly extensive.”
Sam’s place is surrounded by farmland, his nearest neighbour well beyond shouting distance.
“I don’t leave home now. I get some drop-offs. From good friends. By arrangement.”
You don’t feel deprived of anything?
He laughs loud enough to briefly drown out the electric fences. “No, not deprived. And I’ve got a good supply of soap. I’ve got a lot of Imperial Leather, though that’s not my favourite.”
Sam’s a bigger advocate of old-fashioned Sunlight soap. He reckons it’s good for all occasions, even though he doesn’t have many of those on his social calendar at the moment.
The big change for him and other over-70s in the region, Sam imagines, is not being able to get to the local store to collect the mail, pick up supplies or just connect with country neighbours like he used to love doing.
“I realised after I moved here that the store in small town New Zealand is like the church once was. I’d sometimes drive to town, feeling dull, a bit low maybe, then I’d park up and hear the laughter from inside and my mood would change and I’d get back in the car a different man.”
He’s not sure how New Zealanders are coping or how they’ll cope in the future that we haven’t found a shape for yet.
“I don’t know the answer to that. So many people in so few days lost the lot. I’ve never liked the tourism thing much, but I don’t like to kick someone when they’re down. When they’re finished.
“Lives will change. One of my sons is a journalist. The other’s a builder. Their lives will change. It’s like James K Baxter said in High country weather …
Alone we are born
And die alone
So how does a poet cope?
“I’m a poet only when I’m writing a poem,” he reminds me. “Otherwise I’m just hanging round, listening to the silence.”
And to RNZ Concert, probably. Music is a big part of his day since Sam retired from all the touring and all the running around, all the having to go away from home, about the time he turned 70, nearly four years ago now. He’d been living in an almost-bubble anyway, though he doesn’t quite agree, insisting it’s been the other way round, though it’s hard to know what he means by that.
“It hasn’t felt like a bubble,” he says. “More a universe.”
Sam was once a man with a dog for company, most famously Minstrel, who died more than 30 years ago. This might be a time when a four-footed friend might be fine company. But no says Sam.
“I love dogs. Two in particular were major parts of my life. But not now, not when they might be running round with corona-corona on their fur. I see them as a danger. Especially a big hairy old dog like I used to have.
“They’re a necessary danger, of course, for some people.”
When I ask him how he thinks New Zealand might be changed afterwards, he turns to country singer Johnny Cash who, in his ode to San Quentin Prison, said, “I’ll walk out of here a wiser, weaker man”.
“Yep,” says Sam, “we’ll be wiser, weaker folk.”
But he knows exactly the first thing he’ll do if and when the crisis is all over and he can do what he feels like when he feels it again.
“I’ll go for a good drive. Down the Tinopai Peninsula I think. Tinopai means ‘very good’.”
He has some hope that the world will emerge from this life-altering experience a better place.
“My feeling is that people will learn. I was talking to a finance guy I know the other day and I said to him, ‘Your world of bullshit’s over isn’t it?’ He agreed, poor bugger.
“The world will be kinder maybe. I pray so.”
Sam Hunt has never been one of those poets who’ll squirt out something appropriate for every second major event. It’s not that he doesn’t want to necessarily, but that he can’t because it doesn’t work like that for him.
“I don’t ever think I can rise to an occasion in that way,” he says. “The poems come from dreamland, the subconscious. Though there have been times when I’ve been asked to consider something and said fuck off at 11 in the morning and changed my mind by two.
“So who knows?”
Or maybe he’s already written it. Maybe some older lines now have a new resonance for these home-alone times. Like Only you, a poem of Sam’s from a few years ago:
When the house is
warm, when there’s peace,
the old spirits
while you’re sleeping, return.
In the morning
you notice a difference:
it feels like it’s a full house.
With only you in it.