The Penny Poet of Portsmouth

Robert Dunn, photo by John Grady

Around town, it was said that he lived on air, though he really lived on coffee and cigarettes. He was a union of unlikely opposites – one of the strangest and loveliest of people, one of the poorest and richest, one of the most sardonic and serious. He could be brilliant and intentionally obtuse, or quietly contained and defiant, all in the same moment.

The Penny Poet of Portsmouth is a memoir of the author’s friendship with Robert Dunn, a brilliant poet who spent most of his life off the grid in downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire, renting a room in a house without owning a phone, car, computer, or television. The book is as well an elegy for a time and a place rougher around the edges than it is today – the New England seaport city of the early 1990s that has been lost to development and gentrification. It is a meditation on what writing asks of those who practice it and on the nature of solitude in a culture filled with noise and clutter. And it is, finally, the story of a rare individual who charted an entirely unorthodox path that challenged the status quo in every way. More than a memoir or a biography, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth is the fable of a shared journey and a portrait of an abiding friendship.

Praise for The Penny Poet of Portsmouth

Named a Best Book of 2016 by Entropy Magazine, Longreads, and Book Riot

“With eloquent prose, Towler crafts a beautiful portrait of friendship and writing and tenderly, insightfully expresses the lessons she learns through her journey at Dunn's side.” - Publisher’s Weekly

"Towler has written a lovely, careful meditation on [an] unlikely alliance . . . Her new book, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth, is more than an ode to a singular character, though it is that. It's also an evocation of place – a walkable city with stubborn, old-New England charm, built around a vintage market square, as it comes to terms with its own modern, upscaling impulses." - Boston Globe

"In [Robert Dunn's] stubbornly simple life, Towler discerns clues to the purest joys a person can find . . . The core truth of Dunn's life stays with her: 'The silent mornings spent writing were the times when I was most myself.' Writers craving a reminder of that truth - and the hazards it holds - will benefit from this book at the start of any project, retreat, or writing season." - Image

"Katherine Towler’s new memoir is more than an account of her odd friendship with Portsmouth, New Hampshire, poet Robert Dunn. Although she paints a vivid portrait of the eccentric and intensely committed writer, Towler also recollects a New England seaport in transition. By juxtaposing the steadfast poet and the transforming small city, she asks compelling questions about the longing for creative solitude and the need for community." - Portland Press Herald

"The Penny Poet of Portsmouth is one of the most beautiful and touching books I've read in a long time. It is more than just the portrait of the author's unlikely friendship with Robert Dunn, a fabulously talented, wise, eccentric, and mysterious local poet; it is also the portrait of a small city in the midst of change, and of the art of poetry as it vitally and movingly exists outside the academy and the official avenues of recognition. And most of all, it's a portrait of the solitude and fellowship all artists need and seldom find. This book deserves a wide and enthusiastic audience." —Alan Shapiro, author of Night of the Republic, a Finalist for the National Book Award

"The Penny Poet of Portsmouth is a love song to the mysteries of art and friendship. In language that is as sharp as a crystalline winter morning in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the village that serves as the backdrop of the memoir, Towler chronicles the burgeoning of a friendship as it coincides with her own appreciation of what it means to be a friend. This memoir is an exploration of the human condition and the beautiful, maddening desire to get it all down on the page." —Wiley Cash, New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home

"A beautifully observed, honest ode to the literary life, the deep connections between writers, the power of solitude, and the work of creation; The Penny Poet of Portsmouth is a lovely poem to the incalculable power of words." —Karen Bender, author of Refund, finalist for the National Book Award

"A gorgeous meditation on friendship and place, writing and life, and —of course—the Penny Poet of Portsmouth. I loved every beautiful word." —Ann Hood, author of The Red Thread

"Katherine Towler's lovely memoir is beautifully written, keenly observed, and conveys better than any book I've read the necessary and even urgent solitude of the writing life." —Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams

"More than just an elegy for an exuberant and elusive soul, this graceful book is a meditation on success and dying, and finally, a love letter to the immortal written word." —Mark Sundeen, author of The Man Who Quit Money

"This subdued memoir is suffused with a benign calm, like a breath of tranquility from a world parallel to our own." —Madison Smartt Bell

"Katherine Towler's The Penny of Portsmouth is a book about a New England town, and yes a book about the friendship of two writers in that wildly populated landscape of solitude, but it is also, in the end, a book that educates us on how to be human living in the world's most awkward empire, how to love life, love it even in our strangest of centuries, love it even when one has no stomach for it, love it in our neighbors, our streets, our solitudes, our antagonists who are (often) ourselves." —Ilya Kaminsky, author of Dancing in Odessa