Poet publishes two collections at age 79

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Alexis Bentz

Susan Meehan recently published her first books of poetry. Although she began writing poetry as a child, she put it aside to pursue a career in government, and has returned to writing in retirement.
Photo courtesy of Robert Bettman

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a series about local artists and poets, as we launch the Beacon’s year-long Celebration of the Arts, which encourages older adults to take up a new visual art or poetry, or rediscover a past interest. In the spring, readers will be invited to enter their works in a contest, and the winners will be exhibited at several venues.

Last spring, Susan Meehan screwed up her courage and read one of her poems at an open mic competition sponsored by the D.C. Poet Project. She won.

A month later, Meehan, 79, and finalists from other readings competed at the next reading, and she won that one as well.

Along with her cash winnings of $500, she also landed a book deal:  Her poetry collection, Talking to the Night, was published on August 15.

“It was very exciting, and nothing I had ever expected to have happen,” she said.

The slim book ruminates on memories, old friends and aging, among other topics. For example, here’s the compact poem “Dreams:”

Brushing my hair in the moonlight
I smooth memories
plaiting them into a crown
to wear in my dreams
weaving their dark, rough skeins
into silk. 

Only last summer, Meehan had self-published her first book of poetry, The Color of Truth.

“My husband and I decided before the contest had ever occurred that, if I was ever going to [publish my poems], I had better do it now because I wasn’t getting any younger!”

Poetry has been a life-long passion for Meehan. She grew up on Long Island’s North Shore, where her mother used to read poems to her, starting when she was six years old. She began writing her own poetry at about the same age.

“I have been writing poems for as long as I can remember,” Meehan recalled. “I used to sit at my window as a little girl and look out into the woods and watch the crows. I think one of my earliest poems might have been about the crows.”

An idealist in public service

She later graduated from Wellesley College and went to graduate school at Boston University in political science.

Meehan lived in Massachusetts for a while, but after the assassination of President Kennedy, she felt that it was up to her and other like-minded young people to carry out his ideals.

She passed the tests necessary to join the federal government as a management intern at the State Department and moved to D.C.

Meehan has lived in the Washington area since July 6, 1964, a date she remembers well. It was her first day of training for her new position as a management intern, and she found herself sitting next to a man named Robert who was talking incessantly, so much so that her trainer gave her an assignment to keep him from monopolizing the class.

Meehan took her mission very seriously, marrying him in 1967 — and they’ve been talking ever since.

Meanwhile, in her political career, Meehan was busy leading a plethora of committees. She was elected to serve on the Police Community Relations board, established by President Nixon, as well as becoming director of Constituent Services for Ward Two under Committee President Marion Barry.

Barry, who was later elected mayor, additionally selected her to become the first citywide patient advocate for persons in drug or alcohol treatment.

For 12 years, Meehan was a member of the D.C. Democratic State Committee. She spent a day in jail as a result of a zoning battle (which she won), when she was the first Advisory Neighborhood Commissioner in the Dupont Circle neighborhood. She was also twice elected to be a Delegate to the Democratic National Convention.

Still, even during her time working for Mayor Barry, Meehan’s passion for poetry managed to shine through. “[Barry] was forced to listen to me from time to time,” she said with a grin. “He responded by asking me to write and deliver a poem for [one of his] elections as mayor, and I read that poem to more people than I think I ever have before or after.”

After her retirement, Meehan was inspired to return all of her energy to poetry. For Meehan, winning the DC Poet Project was a thrill.

Her secret recipe for penning a poem? She doesn’t have one. “Poems just spring to my mind based on whatever is happening,” she said. “Sometimes I wake up with a poem in my head. Mine are not very formatted, formal poems….Most of them just come out as if I were talking to my pillow.”

She explains this fact in the opening of “A Poet’s Life,” the first poem in her new book.

A poet’s life is never what it seems
So let me tell you how it really goes —
It crawls when hollow nights bring empty dreams
And spins when sudden rhyme brings vertigoes

The Color of Truth is available in print and ebook form on Amazon. For more information about Talking to the Night, visit dayeight.org.