Book Review: Salt River Songs, by Sam Hunt

cv_salt river songsWith around 20 poetry books under his belt, well-loved poet Sam Hunt has once again captured readers with his latest collection, Salt River Songs. Although a thin volume, it is no less weighty or full of treasures than previous collections.

Long-time friend, biographer and occasional collaborator, Colin Hogg writes in his generous intro, that Sam doesn’t know what ‘typically New Zealand poetry is’. This topic has no doubt been debated often over the years, but not many people would argue that Sam’s poetry has contributed healthily to a semblance of a poetic vernacular in this nation. He has a reputation for his everyman, lyrical style grounded deeply in the New Zealand soil. His poems have always emerged from the fertile country of his birth. This collection is no different.

We see through Sam’s eyes from a spot on the verandah or the wharf. While both platforms bring to mind images of ageing, they are spots we all know; as familiar as the vantage of a pohutukawa branch or a deck chair under a tent awning; never far from salty waters. They are themselves etched with the salty wind of family, love and loss; as are these poems.

The title refers to the five salt rivers of the Kaipara Harbour, including Arapaoa, where Sam lives. The title poem is also divided into five sections, each including the leitmotif ‘on Kaipara time’. You can almost feel the salt air in this work, with its allusion to sea shanties and maritime folk songs. It touches on the settler history and nature of time and tide in love and grief. It’s a short cycle; not quite melancholic, but rather wistful. The line ‘it’s a muddy creek for me’ is repeated and closes the piece. It shows Sam’s love of uninhibited nature and a slower pace, far from the sanitised and often frantic urban life in a metropolis, such as Auckland.

Speaking of sanitisation, Hogg recalls Sam’s mum chastising him for using too many F words in his poetry, after accompanying him on tour. There’s a few F-Bombs in this collection for the reader to help us recognise the larrikan performance poet we all know and love. The loveable maverick with his collar up and buttons undone still wanders through these poems, from the bed hair profile pic, to the Hone Tuwhare-style sex poems. But Sam is never crude; cheeky perhaps, but always endearing.

Yes, as Hogg points out, this collection does hold a grief, this through-line of death and loss; the salt rivers themselves a perfect metaphor for tears shed, a poet well-seasoned by the weather of life. (We live close to death, old mate…without even knowing it.) But it never flounders into sentimental territory. It is simply a poet acknowledging the fragility of things: the world [is] held together by cobwebs. But Sam’s philosophy toward the whole thing is summed up in the poem Piping The Fife. Musing on the death of someone he didn’t feel that warmly towards, he writes:
We each get on with our life
as well as we can. For me
I lie low, piping the fife.

He’s committed to the music of life and what plays out, keeping out of trouble. So to quote Sam, ‘I hope he keeps singing that song’ for many years to come.

Reviewed by Anna Forsyth

Salt River Songs
by Sam Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
ISBN 9780947503031

Anis Mojgani – Slam Rhythms, with Marty Smith

Word_ThugAnis Mojgani was born in New Orleans and this is what his first poem settles on: his childhood. Alongside Mojgani, Marty Smith joins him in reading his opening poem by echoing certain phrases, giving the impression of multiple voices shifting and coming together to shape a certain rhythm. When Mojgani completes his poem and lets these final sounds dissipate, a single speck of silence permeates in the air before the sound of applause fills it again.

The first question Smith asks of Mojgani is one about culture, and the two exchange ideas linking this to poetry; certain cultures sound different and therefore have different musicalities. Mojgani talks about how often his “work returns to the city rhythms”; New Orleans is the musicality that he has grown up with and that he finds himself frequently writing about.

Mojgani’s response to Smith’s question about writing with intent and purpose was perfect – Smith suggested that his performance poems are like “sound recordings of his life”; Mojgani agreed with this but also proposes that they are more like “capsules of time” that float both close by and away. Therefore, others can respond to his poetry but his writing doesn’t have to be as conscious and deliberate as recordings. I found myself agreeing with his ideas, and how he believes that poetry is both a “plotted and unplotted endeavour”.

Mojgani therefore gave a sense that poetry doesn’t need to be inherently purposeful. He simply has a human need to create art, to process himself and the world; poetry is simply figuring out “emotion into language you know”. He employed a digression on how we wear our vulnerabilities and emotions like coats. We shed or put on more coats depending on the situation we’re in; we want to protect the one thing—our actual selves—that is truly ours, but we are also terrified of sharing it.

This talk of vulnerability lead to a discussion of his life as a slam poet, a life that includes speaking about personal things to audiences filled with strangers. Mojgani’s advice is simple: we think so much about the things we fear but “the things we fear don’t happen” or if they do, they are simply done and in the past. When his final poem of the evening, ‘Shake The Dust’, fills the room, I’m left with an extreme need to write something. For me, good poetry is poetry that inspires you to write, and this was definitely the case for Mojgani.

cv_the_pocket_knife_bibleI was so enthused by his view of poetry as a purely human and emotive art that I had to go have a talk with him after the event was finished. His latest book, The Pocket Knife Bible, is a beautiful hardcover filled with colourful illustrations and sections of both prose poetry and writing in verse; this is the book Mojgani signed for me. Since his idea of poetry as simply figuring out emotions resonated with me, I asked him what his favourite thing to write about was. After rewording my question to what he wrote most about, he settled on childhood, a topic that he often found himself coming back to and was still sticky in his mind, as is the case with many moments in life.

The note that Mojgani wrote for me alongside his signature simply reads: “Keep your words close and far”. After hearing Anis Mojgani speak, I feel this means keeping words and emotions close to my own heart but also not being afraid to share them with the world.

Attended and reviewed by Emma Shi

Anis Mojgani: Slam Rhythms
5pm, Friday 11 March
NZ Festival Writer’s Week

Anis Mojgani will perform solo at a NZ Festival event in Paekakariki on Sunday, 13 March at 2.30pm in the St Peter’s Village Hall. It will be wonderful, I hope you are going.

Anis Mojgani is doing two events next week in Christchurch, in association with WORD Christchurch, on 15 and 17 March.

Wild Dogs and Other Creatures: Tusiata Avia at the Dunedin Writers and Readers Festival

Chaired by David Eggleton, pp_tusiata_aviaWild Dogs and Other Creatures was a chance to hear poet Tusiata Avia (right) in action. The event began with a lengthy appreciation by Eggleton of Avia’s work so far. He discussed her two previous collections, Wild Dogs Under My Skirt and Blood Clot, and also noted her tendency to portray Samoa as a kind of paradise, but with something festering below. Avia also noted that she is quite an intuitive writer, and Eggleton suggested that in fact her poetry almost reads like a diary, though there was a strong dramatic presence to her poetry which lent itself to the performance of her work.

cv_wild_dogs_under_my_skirtDespite this rather in depth introductory talk from Eggleton, it was clear that the audience was hungry to hear Avia perform her poetry. She first performed four pieces from Wild Dogs, and right from the beginning her experience on stage came through. Three of the four poems were in different voices − two from the voice of a child − and Avia changed her voice, stance and accent to match the different voices, really acting the poems out in a tremendously engaging way. She then read two poems from Blood Clot.

However, for me, the most engaging performances were those of her new poems, which she hoped to have included in a future collection. One of these poems described a woman’s conflicting emotions regarding being raped twenty-five years earlier, and the poem, and Avia’s performance of it, was truly moving. This poem, and one of the earlier poems she read which discussed child abuse, showed Avia’s total lack of fear about confronting difficult issues − in fact, she later said that she felt she had a (self-imposed) role as an artist to bring things to the surface.

Her magnetic performances were cheered and applauded by the audience, and I can only hope that she can return for a future DWRF. It’s also worth noting that she was one of only a very few non-Pakeha/European writers invited to the Festival, and certainly she was the only one to headline her own event. The very warm appreciation of the crowd at Wild Dogs showed, however, that work about Maori and Pasifika people would be welcomed, and quite rightly celebrated.

Event attended and reviewed by Feby Idrus, on behalf of Booksellers NZ 

  • Wild Dogs Under My Skirt (VUP) 9780864734747
  • Bloodclot (VUP) 9780864735935