Local poets take inspiration from D.C.’s rich history

“Another Bungalow” is a collection of poetry by Maura Way.

Susan Meehan inched down her front steps, two of her own publications tucked under her arm: “Talking to the Night” and “The Color of Truth,” each a collection of poems centered around the changes D.C. has experienced since the Dupont Circle resident first arrived in the neighborhood in 1964.

“We were the first white couple to move onto Corcoran Street,” she said. “Back then it was called ‘stab alley.’”

Making her way toward her favorite coffee shop, she gestured to the street. “I remember when this entire block looked different,” she said.

She has seen radio stores become restaurants, and coffee shops become apartment buildings. She has seen her community being built up as much as it has been torn down.

At age 79, Meehan has no intention of slowing down. She recently won first place in the local DC Poet Project, which was created through a grant from the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

“One of the main goals was to encourage professional poetry experiences,” said project director Robert Bettmann. “We also wanted to provide opportunities for underserved communities.”

The first-place winner was also awarded a book contract, which resulted in Meehan’s first book: “Talking to the Night.”

Meehan has been writing poetry since she first heard her mother recite a poem at age 6. She wanted to study poetry in college, but her father wouldn’t let her, so for four years she studied political science and cultivated her love of activism, continuing poetry writing as a hobby. It wasn’t until graduate school at Boston University that her passion for all things word-related was reignited.

“My adviser asked me to edit a book he was writing on politics,” Meehan said. “I enjoyed it so much that it both cost me — and gave me — a career.”

Working as an advocate for citizens addicted to alcohol and drugs, Meehan served in former Mayor Marion Barry’s administration. She devoted her few spare moments to channeling her thoughts into poetry.

“I write a lot about what I’ve seen and what I’ve felt,” Meehan said. “My children used to play with a family of 10 on our street. One day, one of the children came running to me screaming ‘My mommy’s dead,’ and I rushed over to see that it was true. I gained eight godchildren that day.”

Meehan plans to publish another poetry book, but says she does not have a release date yet. After nearly eight decades, she is worried she may live longer than she wants to.

“It’s starting to look like I may live to be the age my father was, which was 103,” Meehan said.

Maura Way’s poetry collection is dedicated to her childhood home in Chevy Chase. (photo courtesy of Maura Way)

Maura Way is another local poet who has used the capital’s ever-changing landscape to her advantage. Attending D.C. public schools in the late 1970s, the Chevy Chase native memorized poetry as part of her elementary school curriculum.

“It meant a lot to me because I was so shy,” Way said.

Way writes primarily about the D.C. of her childhood and the phases of life.

“I try and piece together meaning,” Way said. “And how where we’re from influences us.”

Way now lives in Greensboro, N.C., but said every time she returns to her hometown she feels something is different. “It’s funny because when I read my poems aloud many people don’t realize or think of D.C. as someone’s hometown,” Way said.

Way’s first book — a collection of poems titled “Another Bungalow” — is set to be released Sept. 27. The book is about making sense of a changing world and what it means to “have a hometown that changes more than you do.”

Way said it took her a while to cope with the idea that everyone who knew her growing up might read her poetry, but she finally learned to let her thoughts remain in her book of poems.

“It’s dedicated to 5401 39th St., my childhood home, and the only thing that has stayed static,” she said — Way’s parents still live in the house on 39th Street NW today.