A look back on the life and love of Maude Meehan
In 1979, Santa Cruzan Amber Coverdale Sumrall pulled her car up to a house in Boulder Creek and ventured inside. Her life changed completely. And it was all because of Maude Meehan, a muse who introduced young Sumrall to the colorful world of poetry. Meehan, then fiftysomething, was teaching poetry to a small group of women in her adorable country house. Her impact on Sumrall was tremendous—the elder became not only a mentor and teacher, but also a dear friend, whom Sumrall and many other Santa Cruzans are now mourning. The esteemed “poet to the people” passed away on Saturday, Aug. 25. She will be remembered with fondness, and hopefully a poem or two, by her literary friends, fans and her family.
“She was so welcoming, fun and kind, and she allayed all my fear about being in a group of women, writing, and the nervousness that came with that,” Sumrall says.
Not long after Sumrall’s initial poetry class, Meehan moved the workshops to her home in Santa Cruz and the women followed their teacher to the new destination.
“Her take was that women were not given the recognition they deserved (in the poetry world),” Sumrall says. “Women didn’t have this luxury of our time. We wrote on the run. We grabbed time wherever we could and [our writing] wasn’t that valued back then. It was deemed confessional—women writing about what they knew. It wasn’t looked upon as noble poetry. It wasn’t shrouded in verbiage and obscurity, and so many poets back then were males, writing for the academy, or for other poets in the profession. Some women came along and Maude was at the forefront of that.”
It seems that the revered poet was at the forefront of a lot of things. During the Vietnam War, she was known to have helped draft dodgers escape to Canada.
“She was doing an underground railroad situation,” says her son, Chris Meehan, of Santa Cruz. He explains that she would pick up a young man, clearly on the run from being drafted, and he would pose as her son. She’d also pick up a young woman who would pose as his girlfriend. The trio wouldn’t speak, except through an exchanged piece of paper with an address on it, which directed Meehan where to take her male passenger once in Canada.
Meehan was also an active feminist and a political activist, and in 1996, the American Civil Liberties Union gave her an award called the Bell of Freedom. While activism was something that she was involved in for much of her life, poetry came later, at an older age. As Sumrall tells it, Meehan was 52 when she reportedly wrote her first poem.
“Her first writing workshop was by accident,” Sumrall says. Meehan gave a friend a ride to one of Ellen Bass’ writing workshops and “Maude was inching closer and closer and by the end of the session, she knew she wanted to write,” Sumrall adds.
From there, Meehan tried her hand at poetry, and her natural talent seeped through. “She had such a gift for poetry, just making an experience come so alive on the page,” Sumrall says. “She taught me that poetry is the art of distillation. You have all these words, but your task is to condense them so you’re almost painting with words to get a concise poem, in which every word matters. She believed in brevity.”
Meehan went on to further her natural gift and had four books of poetry published. “As a poet, she wrote prolifically,” Sumrall says. “She wrote about the things that really mattered—her family, issues of social justice, love, her childhood, she wrote about writing and she wrote a lot of love poems to her husband before he died.”
Her husband, Ace Meehan, passed away in 1992. According to their son, Chris, the two fell in love at age 14, and their love story continued until Ace’s passing. Ace was clearly a brilliant man, who began studying at Columbia University at age 15. He was in medical school by the time he was 20.
Along with Chris, Meehan’s survivors include her son, Charles Meehan of Soquel, a daughter, Donna Fairbank, who lives in Massachusetts, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Her son, Chris, agrees that his mother was a “poet to the people.” “Her poetry is very accessible,” he says. “It’s emotional and not intellectual. It’s political rather than esoteric.”
It seems the poetry is just like the poet.
For more information, visit maudemeehan.com .
Poems of Maude Meehan
I would know
the smell of you
among a thousand others
and knowing, choose you.
In saffron robes
The breeze is pungent
with the scent of eucalyptus.
A crane perched on a floating log
preens with Edwardian elegance
oblivious to my presence.
The banks of the lagoon
are brushed with purple, pink,
pale yellow; reminders
that the seasons here
pass gently, announced by
or a subtle change of light.
Unlike that eastern shore
where more than fifty of my years
were weather sliced
precisely into quarters. Here
the illusion of unchanging pace
assures me there is endless time
stretched out and out. Grateful,
I allow myself this small deception.