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  • Linda Ruminer

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel was of German, Scotch-Irish, and Cherokee heritage, born in Stroud, Oklahoma, on December 22, 1918, during the historic worldwide influenza epidemic. Growing up in the Creek Indian Nation region, Wilma was the first daughter and fourth of eight children born to Benjamin Fletcher McDaniel and Anna Elizabeth Finster McDaniel.

Wilma began her life of writing at eight years of age—composing on precious scraps of old mail and used paper that she would stash away once completed. Ms. McDaniel wrote much about her culture. Her sharecropper family was forced from Oklahoma by massive dust storms and the Great Depression, making their way to California in search of survival. Wilma, with her family, spent many seasons picking crops up and down California's Central Valley. As a teenager, she brought with her "the fire and burden of poetry," which remained her constant and often critical companion through the following decades. Wilma once said of poetry, "I cannot imagine life without it."

As the standing Poet Laureate of Tulare, California, author, and critic Cornelia Jessey praised her poetry as "dry and burning phraseology." Simultaneously, novelist James D. Houston described her writings as "absolutely unique and magical." Gerald Haslam, Ph.D. said, "Ms. McDaniel is arguably the finest poet to have emerged from the Oklahoma Dustbowl exodus. The collective body of her work has made her the most important voice to emerge from the Dust Bowl migration."

As folk singer Pete Seeger said, "I wish there were more poets like Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel." As an American icon of what I describe as folk poetry – Wilma stands without peer; much as American folk singer Woody Guthrie stands without peer. Fascinating, both hailed from Oklahoma. In life, she was an amazing woman and extraordinarily courageous to keep the story of her people alive so vividly through her expressive pen.

In contemporary American literature, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel will be acknowledged, remembered, and revered for her brilliant, insightful poetry--recognized and instantly accessible by an unpretentious, pared-down simplicity that belies the strength, depth and ingenious beauty of the story conveyed in each poem.

Ms. McDaniel's descriptive prose may be vignettes of towns and folk from her collective Okie experience before and after her arrival in California. Still, her poetry stands in a class by itself as it captures memories, images, and feelings with style as deceptively sparse as it is insightfully moving. Wilma's poetry is--unique. Her ability to parse down experiences that transform readers in the telling alludes to her power through minimal language use for maximum literary impact. She is not wordy or verbose, yet many of the images she vividly conjures through her poetry are striking, if not breathtaking. Wilma's natural cadence with free-verse seems to have flowed effortlessly from mind-through-pen-to-paper, lending insight to her unique, self-described "affliction". . . as a life-long poet sharing her perceptions and experiences with friends and the world-at-large.

Wilma said of herself, "Isn't it difficult for us poets to assess ourselves in relation to our writing? I meet some poets who are nothing like their work. It causes me to judge that I am rather similar to my work. We are so interwoven. My late spiritual director once told me that a poet's artistic and spiritual life cannot be separated. That helped me so much. At this point in my long life I am surprised to be writing quite new and different poetry and getting much of it published by the small, small presses, all praise and gratitude to them."

Wilma passed away Friday, April 13, 2007, at 88 years in Tulare, California, and lays to rest in Tulare District Cemetery off Blackstone Avenue on Friday, April 20, 2007. Wilma is warmly remembered and loved by many friends, extended family, and devoted readers in her passing.

Wilma's books for sale in Tulare Historical Museum's Gift Shop are Weatherwatch, Tatted Lace and Other Handmade Poems second edition, The Ketchup Bottle second edition; Walking on an Old Road, Borrowed Coats, The Last Dust Storm, A Primer for Buford, Sister Vayda's Song, and Getting Love Down Right. Also, in our gift shop by Author Jeanie Harris is a book entitled Chasing Fireflies, The Dust Bowl Childhood of a Poet, written about the life of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel.

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