Robert Dunn was, in some ways, the embodiment of his poetry, which he wrote in his head while walking through Portsmouth. Deceptively simple, surprisingly profound. He didn’t need much, or even eat much. His existence was dedicated to words.
But when he struggled to breathe after too many cigarettes, Dunn could no longer live alone with his books in a single rented room. He turned to fellow writer Katherine Towler for help and friendship.
They were neighbors when Towler moved to Portsmouth in 1991, and first spoke when he coaxed a cat out of her basement. About 10 years later, she helped appoint Dunn as the city’s second poet laureate, and he set the standard for those who followed. But he only let her in toward the end of his life. He died in 2008 at age 65.
Through example, Dunn taught Towler to be present in the moment, to write for the writing itself, and that no man is an island. Through her new book, she shares the mystery and legacy of a true local character, “The Penny Poet of Portsmouth.”
“A Celebration of the Life of Robert Dunn” is set for March 22 at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth, hosted by RiverRun Bookstore. Friends will read Dunn’s poems and Towler will read from her memoir, which will be released on March 15. The author spoke to The Sound about her relationship with a reclusive poet, and the ever-changing city in which she met him.
Many people were curious about Robert Dunn, but you made a real effort to get to know him. What about him compelled you to reach out?
I so admired the choices he had made in his life as a writer, and he was the sort of writer I wanted to be, a writer purely devoted to his work, who had given up a life of making money, acquiring possessions, and becoming secure in the way we define security in this culture. He had given all that up, and he fascinated me. I wanted to understand how he had achieved such a unique life.
There are still a lot of unknowns about his life, but do you feel like you got to know him in a meaningful way?
I did get to know him in significant ways through the time I spent with him at the end of his life. The conversations we had about writing, about writers we loved, about poetry, and about books, were really wonderful. Robert shared so much of his wry take on the world with me, as he did with anyone who engaged in conversation with him, and that was always wonderful to encounter.
It was a different kind of a friendship because we didn’t share a lot of stories about our past or our families. That wasn’t part of the conversation. Because I became involved in helping to care for him at the end of his life, I went through a very intense personal experience with him as he was sick and in and out of the hospital and rehab unit. That certainly made me feel closer to him in many ways, although it was a distinct kind of closeness because he was such a private person.
You also learned important things about yourself. How much of that was intentional on his part?
I don’t think any of that was intentional on his part. Robert did not see himself as someone who was trying to instruct anyone on how to live. He made the choices he made and he lived his life the way he did, and he was not at all trying to impose his choices on anyone else.
But I saw how much Robert had to teach me and tried to learn from his example, particularly how he was able to be pretty surrendered a lot of the time to whatever came his way. That made me aware of how I was not very good at being surrendered, and often was fighting to change things I couldn’t change.
Have you imagined what his reaction to this book would be like?
I think that Robert might say that I was too hard on myself in the book. And he also would probably object to being the focus of an entire book. He did not like to call attention to himself. But I hope that he would be pleased that his poems are being shared and that people will get to know his poetry through my book. I think that would make him happy. I hope so.
Did he end up leaving his mark through his poetry, despite being careless about publishing?
He made his mark on the world here in New Hampshire. A lot of people knew his work and loved his work. He had some devoted readers here locally and in the state.
Part of what I was trying to get at in telling the story about my friendship with Robert is how he wasn’t motivated by trying to make his mark on the poetry world or the world in general. He was motivated by trying to do the best work he was capable of doing, and sharing it with others when he could in the ways that he could and that he was comfortable with. That’s such a rare thing in this world, someone who is not motivated by trying to impress other people the way most of us are. So I think the answer to that question is, yes. But is that what he was trying to do or most cared about? No.
You note that Portsmouth has changed, and that there might not be room for a life like Robert Dunn’s anymore. Do you think Portsmouth has lost its way on its climb up all the top-10 lists?
Portsmouth has become a more upscale place since I moved here in 1991. That necessarily is going to dictate who can live here. The character of Portsmouth has changed and is changing, and so much of what I really loved when I came here, the feel of the downtown, is different. Portsmouth has come under the inevitable pressures of development, the inevitable pressures that come with being seen as a desirable place to live. Its reputation has spread and grown both for tourists who come here now in even greater numbers, and for people who are interested in moving here. We see the results in a downtown that caters to tourists, has a lot of high-end boutiques and restaurants, and doesn’t have places like J.J. Newberry’s and Peavey’s Hardware anymore.
Portsmouth still has a strong sense of community and a wonderful arts community. The unique nature of this community helped to make Robert’s life possible. But he lived on very little, and that is much harder to do in Portsmouth now. It’s difficult to imagine someone like Robert coming to Portsmouth today, finding an affordable place to live within walking distance of downtown. Robert was the embodiment of what I loved most about Portsmouth, that it embraced people who were eccentric and quirky, who didn’t fit the norm. The kind of development we’ve seen in the last decade doesn’t make room for people like Robert.
“A Celebration of the Life of Robert Dunn” is on March 22 at 7 p.m. at 3S Artspace in Portsmouth. Tickets are $8, or $28 with a copy of the book. Visit 3sarts.org.