Sam Hunt – Off the Road by Sam Hunt
Auckland: HarperCollins Publishers (2018) RRP:$49.99
Reviewed by Jeremy Roberts
Don’t ever ask Sam Hunt if he would like to talk about ‘poetry’. The only thing he is interested in is ‘the poem’, and the means the whole poem. Don’t get him started on those stuck-up dissecting academics in the universities, either. If you know Hunt and the story of his career, this is hardly a revelation, but Sam still feels very strongly about these things. That’s good to know. We don’t want Sam changing too much, do we? Just where he is iat today – age 72, is what Off the Road by Colin Hogg is all about.
A friend of Hunt for thirty years, Hogg knows just how to get inside Hunt’s head. Hunt is very ‘open’ during these interview / conversations – long used to being ‘the centre of every scene’ (p. 11). The fact that Colin Hogg is a close friend means that Sam’s guard is down and almost anything is up for discussion. The constant imbibing of wine & marijuana loosens things up a fair bit, too, so the tone is often humourous. Hogg is a fan yet remains an insightful writer, offering a caring objectivity: ‘he (Hunt) has had to fight to be himself and has had to fight to stay himself, carry himself in a gidday world, defend himself and, quite a lot, hide himself.’ (p.11)
There is a tension throughout the book due to the distinct possibility that the whole project may be called off by Hunt. They have previously had major fallings-out. It is funny to learn that one such occurrence was because Hogg once unwisely told a TV channel during a documentary-pitch that Hunt was a very big fan of C. K. Stead. Nobody should ever speak for Sam – was the painful lesson Hogg learned.
The previous collaboration, Angel Gear (Heinemann Reed, Auckland, 1989), which Hogg wrote about being on the road with Hunt – visiting schools and bars, peppered with Hogg’s own disdain of school teachers and Hunt’s put-downs of small towns like Tauranga and Whanganui – is brought to this book as well, with several chapters inserted here, as a comparative backdrop. Hogg is far closer to Hunt these days, which shows in the writing. There are amusing tangents – a crayfish dinner once eaten with a carafe of Drambuie; a story about posting some dope home inside a teddy-bear; Hogg playing an EP over the phone of a Baxter recording, sounding ‘faintly pompous and as stiff as a lecturer’ – ‘Help, let me out’, Sam yells, ‘I don’t need to hear any more.’ (p.224)
Hogg is at times almost a caregiver / butler – faithfully putting on the casserole, rolling the joint, helping Sam to walk. In fact, this book is as much about Hogg – whose own boozing / dope-smoking life is also laid bare here. Hogg defers to Sam in most situations– as the interviewer – but he does let Sam have it if he feels unfairly attacked or dismissed. Sam usually responds in a sensitive, thoughtful manner.
The life and career of Sam Hunt have already been well documented. For example: The Roaring Forties (Hodder Moa Beckett, Auckland, 1995) Angel Gear, Sam’s own book Backroads (Craig Potton Publishing, Nelson, 2009) and the recent release of Salt River Songs (Potton & Burton, Nelson, 2016) – with its collection of poems that stared down the ‘Grim Reaper’ – already publicising the noteworthy happenings in the universe of Mr Hunt. But this book brings to life the colourful relationship between these two men, Hunt and Hogg.
There are some poems in the text – both old and new – that offer intriguing insights into Hunt’s method of writing. ‘It’s all magic’ (p.58) Hunt tells Hogg, and then adds: ‘it’s a need to be somewhere where you can hear … your own pulse … You’ve got the rhythm section … then your words come along … and sometimes you scribble it down … the main driving force is solitude.’ (p.58 – 59) A poem might just as easily emerge during one of Hunt’s midday naps. When Hogg presses Hunt for his job description, he says ‘I’m only a poet when I’m making up a poem … when I’m not making up a poem I’m a person who’s waiting.’ (p.79) Other poets also appear in the text – e.g., W. B. Yeats, Robin Hyde and Sarah Broom – whose quoted poems add a richness to the conversation. Hunt often demonstrates that famous memory, at Hogg’s prodding.
One of the most delightful sections in the book involves Hunt telling Hogg about finding a dead shag. Here seems to be the very creative essence of Hunt revealed. Hogg notices a spot of blood on Sam’s jeans and then there is a recount of what happened – a collection of thoughts which sounds every bit like an early draft of a poem, full of details: ‘I came up my long driveway, up onto the metal road and I spotted something …it’s a shag, an old shag, a big old white-throated shag …it was being buzzed by a couple of blowflies, I thought, Well, your time’s up … I got my axe, the five-pound Kelly, which I keep very sharp …I gently put my gumboot on top of it and took its head off … I had visions of ISIS … the real image came to me when the head … turned and seemed to be looking at me.’
In terms of poetry performance, there is a talk about why Sam has stopped going out on the road and insights into the touring days: ‘A good tour for me wasn’t just a tour you’d done that had full houses … what made a good tour was when you had this new ammunition every night.’ (p.82)
In terms of career and lifestyle, this book could surely stand as the colourful ‘last testament’ of Sam Hunt. As Hogg writes, ‘When Sam dies, a lot dies with him – the voice, the whole Sam Hunt experience.’ (p.224) This book makes you wish that day is still a long way off.
The intimacy is what sustains this book. Sam talks freely about his alcoholism. He admits to downing a bottle of cough-mixture a day at age fourteen. ‘I’m a practising alcoholic … the alcohol intensifies the loneliness … it was a great gift, you know, to be an alcoholic …the whole consciousness-changing thing does interest me.’ (p.111) This is a typically honest response to Hogg’s questions. At one point, Hogg, who has his own drinking problems, says ‘I know you’re drinking yourself to death, but it’s not fucking working. It’s not actually killing your body, but it is killing your brain …I’m dealing with several people at different times. You’re having conversations you can’t remember. It’s becoming upsetting.’ (p.146) Depending on your point of view, such private dialogue may be worrying, even shocking, but these men are very close.
It’s touching to see such rare honesty from public figures.
Jeremy Roberts has regularly appeared at numerous spoken word events around Auckland City – including Pah Homestead, Rhythm & Verse, University of Auckland Lounge, and more. He has also read his work in Texas (USA), Jakarta (Indonesia) & Saigon (Vietnam). His work has been published in Side Stream, Live Lines,, Poetry NZ, Free Venice Beachhead (California) Takahe Magazine, NZ Listener, NZ Herald, Snorkel, Potroast, NZ Poetry Society’s a fine line, he years hold hands anthology, Frankfurt Bookfair 2012:An Aotearoa Affair, Blackmail Press, Phantom Billstickers, Jakarta Expat (Indonesia), Debris and Landfall.