Portsmouth author Katherine Towler began writing about her friend Robert Dunn — a.k.a. the Penny Poet of Portsmouth — eight months after his death in 2008.
“I spent so much time with him in the last years of his life, when he was sick,” Towler said via phone last week. “It had been a very powerful experience for me personally, and I felt I couldn’t fully understand the impact Robert had on me and my life until I wrote the story.”
It started as an essay, which grew and grew. Three months and 25 pages later, she felt unsatisfied. Towler was used to writing novels, not nonfiction, but just the same, the piece didn’t feel right.
“I felt that it had only begun to tell the story of who he was and what our friendship was like,” she said. “At that point I said, well, I think this needs to be a longer piece of writing.”
Towler met Dunn in 1991 when she moved to Portsmouth with her then fiance. Dunn, a “tiny, gaunt man” with a black trenchcoat and thick glasses, was part of the downtown landscape and could be seen daily — crossing Market Square, emerging from the post office, sitting on the stone wall by the cemetery. She assumed he was homeless.
He wasn’t — however, he didn’t own things most people consider necessities in American culture today. No phone, car, computer or TV. Downtown Portsmouth residents knew him for his poetry book collections, which he sewed together himself and sold for a penny. Rumor had it he lived on coffee and cigarettes. He was content with his small, local audience, not at all interested in fame. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he became a local celebrity.
“He lived pretty much outside the system as most of us know it, and that enabled him to remain very focused on his writing, and his collections of poems,” Towler said. “It seemed to me that this was what mattered most about this story — the kind of life Robert lived. … He made me think quite a bit about how caught up we are in American culture in proving ourselves to others. … Many people want to be famous for the sake of being famous, and Robert rejected so much of that.”
Towler spent nine months recording her memories. Anytime she remembered a story, characteristic or conversation with Dunn, a former Portsmouth poet laureate, she wrote it down and filed it away to be re-shaped afterward. Her fiction writing background helped in bringing these tales to life, but the process was also very different.
“The time I spent with Robert at the end of his life was very intense. We had some really powerful and interesting conversations, so I tried to recreate those. In doing so, I drew very much on fiction techniques,” she said. “I found the process of writing a memoir very different from a novel because the outline of the story was given to me. What I had to do was figure out why the story mattered — why it mattered to me, and why it might matter to readers.”
Towler shaped those memories and stories into The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship, published in March by Counterpoint Press. Around the same time, she partnered with Sid Hall and and Roger Martin in editing and publishing One of Us is Lost: Selected Poems of Robert Dunn, part of the Hobblebush Books Granite State Poetry Series.
Towler is pleasantly surprised at the audience her memoir has found; this past December, it made the Longreads Best of 2016: Under-Recognized Books list, as well as Entropy’s Best of 2016: Nonfiction Books list.
She’s also received a great deal of feedback from people who knew Dunn. Twenty-five people were interviewed for the story, and many felt the same way she did about him.
“I approached [the project] with some trepidation because I was writing about someone who, as I said, was a treasured figure in Portsmouth,” she said. “But people said to me over and over again, ‘I’m so happy you’re doing this because you’re keeping Robert alive.’”
As 2016 winds down, Towler is turning her attention back to short stories and fiction. She’s begun a novel but is interested in mixing up her process. She liked writing as it came to her instead of straight through, which is how she used to work.
“When you [write fiction], you can become constrained by plot, and I felt that in writing the memoir, I was freed of that. I’m interested then to see if perhaps I could go back to fiction and bring some of that freedom I experienced in nonfiction with me,” she said.