Of German, Scot\Irish and Cherokee heritage, Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel was born in Stroud, Oklahoma, on December 22, 1918, during the historic worldwide influenza epidemic of that time, the first daughter and fourth of eight children born to Benjamin Fletcher McDaniel and Anna Elizabeth Finster McDaniel. She was raised in the region known as the Creek Indian Nation.
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 voluminously of her culture. Her sharecropper family was forced from Oklahoma by the Great Depression and massive dust storms; one among the thousands making their desperate exodus to California in search of survival. Wilma, like her family, spent many seasons picking crops up and down California’s San Joaquin Valley. As a teenager she brought with her “the fire and burden of poetry,” which remained her constant and often critical companion through those following decades. “It can burn away trash and sear my ego, or warm my spirit in a bitter cold state of mind. I cannot imagine life without it.” [For more about Wilma in her own words, see Joan Jobe Smith’s fascinating “Almost-Interview” from 1999.]
Wilma passed away Friday, April 13, 2007 at 88 years in Tulare, California and was laid to rest in Tulare District Cemetery off Blackstone Avenue on Friday, April 20, 2007. The memorial and funeral services were attended by many of Wilma’s relatives and numerous friends. She is missed and loved by many.
Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel has been titled the ‘Okie Euterpe’ by critic Robert Peters. Author and critic Cornelia Jessey praised her “dry and burning phraseology”; while novelist James D. Houston described her writing as “absolutely unique and magical”. Ms. McDaniel is arguably the finest poet to have emerged from the Oklahoma Dustbowl exodus. In fact, the collective body of her work has made her “. . . the most important voice to emerge from the Dust Bowl migration . . .”, as noted by Gerald Haslam, Ph.D., fellow ‘Okie’ writer and Professor Emeritus of English at Sonoma State University. Wilma’s poems were featured regularly in the nationally-known journal Hanging Loose, while four strong collections of her poetry have been published by Hanging Loose Press, Brooklyn, New York. Other publishers across the country have also presented collections of her work. Here in California, Back40 Publishing collaborated with Wilma in the last two decades of her life, publishing one collection of Wilma’s poetry, four collections of Wilma’s poetry & prose, and eight editions of her prose, vignettes, and\or short stories, reprising Wilma’s Stone Woman Press imprint on all these chapbooks and paperback editions, which Wilma originally used on most of her earlier, self-published collections.
Wilma was honored as standing Poet Laureate of Tulare, California in recognition of her poetry and prose, during the Central Valley town’s Bicentennial Clebration in 1976. As folk singer Pete Seeger said, “I wish there were more poets like Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel.”
In closing, I would add that--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 and have been honored with Literary Landmark sites in their home state.
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 her passing, Wilma is warmly remembered and loved by many friends, extended family and devoted readers.
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 image or story conjured in each of her poems.
Please explore the Illustrated Bibliography of Wilma’s body of work with numerous publishers, spanning four decades. [A lot of scrolling, but informative!] I believe this to be ‘the’ comprehensive list: from her first self-published collection in 1973, The Carousel Would Haunt Me, to the posthumous 2009 revised second editions of The Ketchup Bottle and Tatted Lace and Other Handmade Poems that were initially published in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Fifteen of the titles listed were self-published [two, possibly three, I have not actually found--yet]; most all listed are\were limited editions and therefore are relatively rare, with the majority of those out of print long ago. However, I am trying to bring more of Ms. McDaniel’s work into view, as time allows [hence, the two expanded editions mentioned above]. There is also still a fair quantity of Wilma’s material that never made it into any of her published titles and was never submitted for inclusion in the number of poetry journals listed alphabetically at the end of the bibliography. Other literary publications, anthologies and critical studies of Wilma’s work can also be found below the poetry journal list. Any additional details will be added as new discoveries are made.
Of note, ARTLIFE, a limited edition monthly art journal published out of Ventura, CA had a page or two featuring the poet’s work for a stretch of months in the late ’90s through early ’00s [issues #196-271], with a special tribute edition [vol. 20 #2, issue #211; depicted on left] that included an expanded section highlighting Wilma and her poetry.
Available on film is Down an Old Road -- The Poetic Life of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, a documentary about her life and work that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2001. Contact director\producer Chris Simon at: firstname.lastname@example.org regarding availability of the DVD version. Upon seeing Chris’s film and hearing Wilma read her own work, viewers can discover the spirit of Wilma, what her poetry evokes, and the weight of her contribution to contemporary American literature.
Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel’s life and poetry was also featured in Red Dirt, Growing Up Okie, http://www.okreadsok.org by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, copyright 1997 Verso Press, London, UK. In it, Wilma’s poetry is prominently featured as frontpieces for many of the chapters. The final chapter, Epilogue: California Litany, focuses on Dunbar-Ortiz’s initial discovery and meeting of Ms. McDaniel and the profound impact McDaniel and her writings had on the author; essentially giving her the insight to complete her manuscript for Red Dirt and send it off for publishing.
Of note, DRY CRIK Review has some wonderful additional poetry and material in tribute to Wilma, from Wilma’s friend and fellow poet, John Dofflemyer, through the Western Folklife Center. John’s two collections, Poems from Dry Creek and Proclaiming Space were chosen ‘Best Book of Poetry’ for 2008 and 2012, respectively, by the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Congratulations, John! As Wilma would say on innumerable occasions, “Press on . . . .”
A Pair of Rivers first appeared in A River They Call Merced (1991)
Desert Siren first appeared in Song of San Joaquin (1992)
New County Road first appeared in The Blue Cloud Quarterly Volume XXIV, Number 2 (1978)
Self-Knowledge first appeared in I Killed A Bee For You (1987), and was also included in Highway 99: A Literary Journey through California, a 1996 anthology edited by Stan Yogi for the California Council for the Humanities--one of many anthologies that featured Wilma’s work.
All poetry and prose by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel presented above and on this website © Back40 Publishing, Sebastopol, California and are posted on these pages in tribute to, in memory of, and as an informative resource highlighting the late poet and her literary legacy--all rights reserved. All photographic portraits of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel © their respective photographers and seen here by permission.
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