The Bookshelf: Towler Remembers Portsmouth's 'Penny Poet'

Mar 18, 2016

The Bookshelf is NHPR's series on authors and books with ties to the Granite State. All Things Considered host Peter Biello features authors, covers literary events and publishing trends, and gets recommendations from each guest on what books listeners might want to add to their own bookshelves. 

If you have an author or book you think we should profile on The Bookshelf, send us an email. The address is books@nhpr.org.

This week, The Bookshelf features Katherine Towler, author of the new memoir, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth. In the last decades of his life, poet Robert Dunn lived a simple life in the Seacoast city. He worked part-time at the Portsmouth Athanaeum, wrote poems and sold little books of them for a penny, and nurtured friendships that sustained him in his last days. Katherine Towler became friends with Dunn after moving to Portsmouth in the 1990s and was one of many who cared for him in his last days. Her memoir paints a portrait of their friendship as well as the changing city. Scroll down to read a list of the top five books on Towler's bookshelf, listen to her conversation with Peter Biello, or read the transcript.

Katherine Towler's Top 5 Book Recommendations:

1.   The Solace of Open Spaces by Gretel Ehrlich. "In this memoir, Ehrlich writes about moving to Wyoming from the East and exploring a harsh, new landscape. She paints vivid portraits of the cattle and sheep ranchers she meets, but the book is most memorable for the beautiful writing and the way her internal life is threaded through the descriptions of the land and weather. Ehrlich creates a powerful record of how the open space of Wyoming changed her. This book is a fine example of how, in the hands of a great writer, anything can become rich material."

2.   No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod. "Alistair MacLeod, a Canadian writer, died in 2014. He wrote only one novel and a couple of collections of short stories in his lifetime, but they are masterpieces, carefully and beautifully crafted. No Great Mischief  tells the story of a Cape Breton family, Scottish immigrants who work the mines and live proud, hardscrabble lives. MacLeod captures two hundred years of history in the MacDonald family through the twentieth century story of two brothers, one who escapes the mines and the weight of the past, and one who doesn’t. MacLeod’s work is heartbreaking and brilliant, his ability to tell the story of a people through the smallest details of daily life astonishing."

3.   Collected Poems by James Wright. "I first read James Wright in the 1980s and was instantly seduced by the reach of his spare poems. This is a book I continue to pull from the bookshelf to be reminded how much can be said in a few words. Wright unites sadness and delight in these poems, giving us a world that even in dark moments is full of a revelatory light. His poems have a Zen-like clarity and acceptance of what life brings. They ask us, as the best poems do, to stop and pay attention."

4.   Refund by Karen Bender. "This collection of short stories was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2015. Karen Bender has an uncanny prescience in the depiction of her characters, looking it seems into their very souls. She writes about relationships between husbands and wives, and parents and children, with a searing honesty that articulates our deepest conflicts and ambiguities. This book is most notable, however, for its stories of American life on the decline. Bender has caught the current moment in her bittersweet stories of people whose lives are driven by money. Implicit in these stories is a critique of how money shapes so much in American culture, including our most intimate relationships, yet these remain beautifully told stories about ordinary lives."

5.   Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. "Leslie Marmon Silko is a Laguna Pueblo Native American. In this lyrical novel, she tells the story of a young Native American who has returned to the Laguna Pueblo reservation after serving in World War II. Utterly damaged, suffering from what we would now call PTSD, her protagonist, Tayo, searches for a way to find peace through his people’s traditions and rituals. With its unconventional form and beautiful writing, this book draws on Native American myths and poetry to dramatize Tayo’s tough journey. The narration of this book mirrors the ceremony Tayo must undergo and understand to find healing. It’s a profound and moving book."

Robert Dunn was a difficult man to get to know. You were considered one of his closest friends, but as you write, you’d often see signs that other people also had close relationships with him and it was a mystery to you how close they were to him. So, you say you were able to see a little more of his vulnerable side. Tell us a little more about your relationship with Robert.

Well, I first met Robert when I moved to Portsmouth in 1991. He rented a room in the house next door to mine on a little dead end street that goes down to South Mill Pond in Portsmouth. And the scene in that house was really wonderful, because he rented this single room from an elderly woman who lived in that house most of her life, and the room that he lived in did not have any outlets in it.

No electricity?

Well, there were no outlets. There was one bare bulb that came out of the wall, and that was his light for the room. So he lived this very Spartan existence there. And he was a very private person, and he didn’t talk much about himself. He didn’t talk about his past, he didn’t talk about his family—he talked mostly about poetry and books. And that’s the kind of conversations he liked to have. He liked to engage you in conversation about what he was reading, what he was thinking about, sometimes politics. We would talk about current news, things around town, but not much of a personal nature. But as I got to know him, I discovered that he had a lot of friendships in town. He knew a lot of people through his work at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. He walked everywhere in town, he knew all the shopkeepers downtown. They all knew him because he walked around town every day. He would stop in to get coffee or cigarettes. So, you know, I came to appreciate how connected he was to other people, although he remained quite private.

It seemed like his love of talking about poetry was a universal thing. Like, it’s not like he talked about poetry with you and talked about his history with other people. It seemed like he just flat-out that’s the primary thing he liked talking about.

Yes. So, when I started writing the book, I interviewed a lot of people—maybe 25 or so people—who had known Robert in Portsmouth over the years, and I discovered that many of them had similar friendships with him to mine. The focus of their conversations had been the same as the focus of my conversations with him. So, yes that’s true. He was a person who lived very much in his mind, and he had a brilliant mind.

And you write that he composed the poems in his mind and didn’t really write them down until he actually thought they were very close to being done, which I thought was kind of amazing, because these poems aren’t necessarily all short. They’re long and complicated.

Right, and that was something I discovered at the end of his life when he was ill, and he was quite ill for about three years. And he needed a lot of help, and I was one of the people who became involved in helping him. And one time when I went to visit him, he was actually in the rehab unit at the assisted living facility, he said, “I’ve been working on this poem for a while and I think it’s done.” And I said, “When you say you’ve been working on a poem, what do you mean?” And he said, “Oh, well I don’t write it down, I work on it in my head.”

And so I realized that all those years I’d seen him walking around in Portsmouth, he had all that time been writing poems in his head as he walked around town each day. And it is a wonderful process and very unusual for a writer to work that way. And what he told me is that he would work on a poem for one to two months in his head before he put it in on paper. He would only put in on paper when he believed it was finished.

And I said to him, “Aren’t you afraid that you will forget it?” And he said, “Oh, no.” He said, “Anything that I need to remember, I will remember.”

Do you have a favorite of his poems?

Well, there’s one poem—so, I include, in my book, I included a number of him poems, and this is one that he wrote in the last five years or so of his life, and it was published in an anthology called Portsmouth Unabridged. He didn’t title most of his poems, so this doesn’t have a title:  

You have to live twenty years in a place to claim
never to have been there. Before that you’re not quite sure.
There are everywheres everywhere.
A moment of shared laughter, a scent of new-cut grass
will give strangeness a familiar face.
Yet if my heart has a true home
it lies in the ruins where people are foolishly building anew. Where even know in the rubble
someone is clearing a path, and a sheet of transparent
plastic catches the wind like a guiltless flag.

The book is partially about place, Robert wrote about place, about Portsmouth in particular and the changing city. And you arrived in the early nineties, and it’s changed quite a bit since then.

Yes, so when I came to Portsmouth, it had been through sort of one wave of gentrification. But since then there’s been a lot of development in town. And particularly the downtown, the face of the downtown has changed substantially. So, there were a lot of old family owned businesses when I came to Portsmouth in the 1990’s, and those are gone now.

Longtime residents would remember the J.J. Newberry’s, the A&P—now those I believe are chain stores, right?

Well, yes, they’ve been—their places have been taken by boutique gift shops, and boutique clothing stores, high-end restaurants.

So, not necessarily chain stores, but things that appeal to a sort of touristy population?

Right. Now, I mean Portsmouth has always been a destination. It’s always been a place that people like to visit, but it is really catering to tourist population now, the downtown.

How do you see your relationship with Portsmouth and your relationship with Robert sort of dovetailing? How do they connect?

One of the things that made me write the book was thinking about how a place like Portsmouth made Roberts’s life possible, because he was able to live within walking distance of downtown, but he didn’t own a car, he did not own a telephone, a computer, a television. He lived, as I said, this very Spartan existence. He owned very little, he lived on next to nothing financially, and yet he was able to do that. And I think it was partly the nature of the community in Portsmouth. There’s always been a strong sense of community there, there’s always been a strong arts community. And he was really recognized as a town treasure. You know, many, many people in town understood—Robert is the kind of person we want to have in this town. He’s quirky and eccentric, but he’s also very talented, and he gives a lot to our community.

So, I was interested in the relationship between him and the city, and then that made me think about my relationship with the city, and why was it a place where I had come to feel at home finally after living this very nomadic life in my twenties and early thirties. And it was a place where I have come to feel at home. So, it was thinking about both of those things that made me write the book and made me write about Portsmouth as much as a character in the book as Robert or as myself.

Portsmouth being a small city seemed to fit so nicely with the way you felt about being a writer, and being  a published writer, because you write about feeling some anxiety or nerves about finally pushing your book out into the world and being this public figure. But it’s almost like, staying in Portsmouth long enough, you become a public figure just by existing. You know, by going to the store people see you, you know friends and suddenly you are a known quantity, or people maybe think you are a known quantity, and in that way your sort of change your identity, both by living in Portsmouth for a long time, or a city that size, and by being a published author.

Right. Both of those things sort of went in tandem for me. As I discuss in the book, I grew up in Manhattan. So, that’s a very different kind of experience.

You could be anonymous there.

Exactly. And I found that in Portsmouth you couldn’t be anonymous, you know? The size of the town is such and the nature of the community that you will become a known person. And I write about,  in the book about how not long after we had moved there, we hadn’t been living there for that long, I discovered that almost every time I walked into town, I ran into someone I knew. And that was such a different experience, coming from a place like Manhattan.

The other thing then that was very interesting to me was how Robert had negotiated this, because he was really a wonderful poet, really very talented, but he wasn’t particularly interested in seeking out fame, getting recognition from the wider world, and yet he did want to share his poems. He wanted people to know him as a poet. So in the smaller world of Portsmouth, he was—you know, people said he was famous in Portsmouth. Everyone knew him and admired his work, and treasured him as I said, as not just a person who was sort of a local character, but as a writer who had real talent.

How did Robert sort of serve as a mentor to you, if indeed he did, about how to exist in the world as writer?

Robert never wanted or tried to serve as a mentor to anyone, so he certainly never saw himself that way. And though he made very unique choices in his life, which I admired so much, he would never had tried to impose those choices on anyone else, or hold himself up as a model. He simply had a great deal of integrity in the way he lived his life. But he wasn’t about to expect anyone else to follow his path.

But for me, he was a very instructive person, because he was so surrendered in many ways about letting whatever happened happen to him, not trying to go out and make a name for himself, being content to share his poems in the way he did, being content with the audience he had, and knowing that the work was good and had its value even if it did not become more widely known in the world outside of Portsmouth. And that I thought was a really important lesson, and one that I could benefit from.

Putting the importance of publishing into perspective?

Right. So, his focus was so purely on the work itself, on the poetry, and on doing the best work he was capable of doing it, and sharing it in the way he was comfortable sharing it. And that to me, sort of watching him over the years and then my interactions with him particularly at the end of his life made me think a great deal about where my focus should be, and that I should simply focus on doing the best work I am capable of doing, finding the work that is mine as a writer, and let go of the rest of it.

This is such a personal book and Robert was such a private person. Was there any point while writing this that you had to make yourself wonder what Robert would think of the work you were doing?

I did think about that. And when I started the book, I certainly had some trepidation. Not so much that I thought he would be unhappy about my writing the book, I don’t really feel that way, but that I was taking on writing about someone who was sort of an icon in my town. And I didn’t want to disappoint people, and I didn’t want to present Robert in a light that did not do him justice. So, I was apprehensive about that. I think, he was so supportive of me as a writer and he truly wanted the best for me as a writer, and so I think that he would be pleased that I was able to write this book. I don’t think he would disapprove of that.