I: “Minor poets have more fun.”

There are towns that are actually poems. Portsmouth, New Hampshire is one of them. You can walk out of Market Square in a summer night’s fog thick with salt and the faint rumble of cars and life. This gem of the seacoast, with its boutiques, bars, and history; you can still feel Portsmouth’s pulse, but then you are down by the dark, dank South Mill Pond, imagining the girl who wanted you to smile, waiting for you from a close distance. Maybe she’ll be there, but maybe she’s just part of a poem.

Portsmouth is a walking town: brick sidewalks, narrow streets, saltboxes and Federal architecture. It’s an artist’s city, filled with coffee and alcohol and pizza by the slice. Panhandlers mingle with Connecticut debutantes on benders. Kids play music on the sidewalks, guys paint up canvases in the Square, perhaps someone scratching his chin with a smirk on his face is about to jot down the missing line to the perfect composition when no one is looking, slipping into an alley.

I played the chin-scratching poet once, pretending to be seen as I tried to be invisible, writing on a bench in the middle of Market Square. Large groups of people strolled by – drinkers, pretty girls, college students, tourists – and I’d write in my moleskine. Then I’d shrug, get up and walk through the night past South Mill Pond and back to wherever I lived, slipping through the crowd like a spy.

Public Notice

They’ve taken away the pigeon lady,

who used to scatter breadcrumbs from an old

brown hand and then do a little pigeon dance,

right there on the sidewalk, with a flashing

of purple socks. To the scandal of the neighborhood. This is no world for pigeon

ladies.

 

There’s a certain wild gentleness in

this world that holds it all together. And

there’s a certain tame brutality that just naturally tends to ruin and scatteration and

nothing left over. Between them it’s a very near thing. This is no world without pigeon

ladies.

 

Now world, I know you’re almost uglied out, but . . . just think! Try to

remember: What have you done with the

pigeon lady? [dunn]

I always wanted to be the writer. In the mind-scraping days of high school, I once found an old book published in New Hampshire, filled with local poets. One quirky, scrappy little man was named Robert Dunn. His poems were witty and thoughtful, and just edgy enough to read to my class and know I was proving to them how cool I was.91

Even though I only had two poems by Dunn along with a silly photo of him shrugging at the stars which contain all the answers, I was heavily influenced by his work. I read the poems often, and took them to heart. The poems became part of my persona. As I reached my twenties, I discovered Dunn’s hometown of Portsmouth just down the highway and moved there. I still wrote poems, though mostly in the form of songs, and I decided that apples, cheese, whisky, and wild, wild women were much in demand. Beer, cheap pizza by the slice, and a pretty awesome girlfriend were also acceptable. One must set a priority somewhere.

As I took nighttime walks with my headphones and my notebooks by the Piscataqua or under I-95, Robert Dunn was possibly doing the same thing, minus the notebooks, right down the street. He walked the streets and thought up his poems for months, finally writing them down when they were complete. I wonder how many times we rubbed elbows, or if I ever held a door for him, or if we ever spoke. Perhaps we stood in line at the post office or in State Street Convenience – he’d have been buying a sandwich; I’d have a Smuttynose. We both may have bought cigarettes.

Dunn had rented a small room in an old apartment building – now infamously known for not even having an electrical outlet – for years. He made his living by working part-time in a private library right in town. He ate very little, smoked very much, and still found time to release a poem here, sneak out to a local reading there…

One day I wandered into a local bookshop and searched for Dunn in the poetry section. I found a pocket-sized volume called Je ne regrette rien and scooped it up. The clerk was excited to talk about Portsmouth’s favorite poet. I learned that Dunn had recently passed away – and that there were no authoritative collections of his work: most of what he published were these little books. And to make it fun, he sold these “chapbooks,” at the princely sum of one cent.

One cent.

For anyone on the street who happened to see him and request one. And if you tried to pay him more, he’d demand you accept change. If you only had a dollar, he’d dig out the ninety-nine cents.

         I hear America singing. Sometimes

it troubles me. [dunn]

All of Dunn’s poems were fun, thoughtful, and best of all, they were accessible, practically given away. (For the record, I paid much more than one cent for my volume.)

II. “It just feels kind of silly posting no trespassing signs on my poems.”

Portsmouth writer Katherine Towler was one of those lucky folks who purchased some of Robert Dunn’s penny chapbooks. In her memoir, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth – focusing on her friendship with Dunn – she shares a humorous story about trying to give Dunn a $5 bill for his book. After realizing he was prepared to give her a lot of pocket change, she found something smaller.

Upon opening her new treasure, she was shocked to read these words: “1983 and no nonsense about copyright. When I wrote these things they belonged to me. When you read them they belong to you. And perhaps one other.”

Towler writes, “Robert could not bring himself to describe his poems as ‘published.’ The poems were happenings, pieces of street theater that somehow wound up on the printed page. With this introduction, he made it clear again that he would not participate in the farce of self-importance to which writers, poets perhaps in particular, are so prone.”

Surely no snooty elite, his work has been “written on paper boats and airplanes…yelled from apple trees…whispered or sung softly on foggy nights to the deer and foxes.”

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“Could Robert actually give up the copyrights,” Towler queried, “letting the poems go like unclaimed children? As an unpublished writer, other than a few stories in literary magazines, I was obsessed with the concept of copyright. Robert’s cavalier approach alarmed and impressed me. Truly, it appeared, he was free of any sense of his worth as a public person. I could not begin to fathom that sort of freedom, hungry as I was for recognition of any sort.”

As Dunn released his poems into the wind like the puffs of dandelions, walking down alleys and brick-strewn streets, he was creating a local lore that would far outlive himself. And isn’t that what an artist really wants?

III: “An Author with a capital A…”

Having published several novels, Katherine Towler calls herself an “Author with a capital A.” She’s admitted in Penny Poet – after reminiscing about her own days as a young writer traveling and living a less structu89red life – that she’d consider taking a different path if she could do it all again. “I often wished that I had made a different bargain, more like the one Robert had made. He had managed to get his poems out there while sidestepping the whole business of being a writer. He was a public person in the little world of Portsmouth, a scale that suited him. He was personally acquainted with many of his readers and cared not a whit what they thought of his poems. How I admired the freedom this gave him.”

And his poems didn’t just go where the wind carried them. As Poet Laureate of Portsmouth, Dunn oversaw a project in which poetry was displayed in public places, such as parks and parking garages. It was actually a poem of his at my favorite nighttime riverside thinking spot that inspired me to search the local bookstores for his work…

From here you can see the tide

Turn like a door on its hinges:

We’re just going out. Do you want

Anything from the ocean? [dunn]

I particularly appreciate that Dunn’s poems aren’t even in “the public domain.” As mentioned above, the poems belong to you, adunnnd perhaps one other. Art is a powerful thing, and it affects each person differently. That’s the only person it should matter to — the individual consuming it. What does it mean to you?

But art might not be able to affect anyone when it’s locked up in a warehouse somewhere, waiting for permission to be shared. Dunn’s books are not the most accessible example of non-copyrighted work, as many of them do remain out of print and obscure. But much like dormant weed seeds, it only takes a little wind and a little water to spread the flowers anew. And without the wait-time of 70 years for a copyrighted work to enter the public domain, these poems may spread much faster.

Robert Dunn didn’t care what you did with the poem once it was yours. He created it and set it free and that satisfied him. And he will be remembered in Portsmouth forever  because of it.