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Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, 88; poet wrote of Dust Bowl migrants in state

April 20, 2007|Valerie J. Nelson | Times Staff Writer

Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, "the Okie poet" with the down-home style whose writings reflected the lives of her brethren, Dust Bowl migrants who came to Central California during the Great Depression, has died. She was 88.

McDaniel, who also was the poet laureate of Tulare, Calif., died April 13 of complications related to old age at a Tulare rest home, said her friend Katherine Andes.

"We are not going to see her like again," Gerald Haslam, who has written many books about California, told The Times. "She was the California Walt Whitman -- she took plain language and turned it into something magical."

\o7gravy says a lot

about us people

who invoke

the southern fried ...

... the way it stretches out

the dreams

from payday till

tomorrow

-- From "gravy says a lot"

The poem resulted in a nickname -- "the biscuits and gravy poet" -- that McDaniel never much cared for. A Fresno Bee book editor bestowed it in the 1970s and it stuck, a salute to her ability to spin everyday experiences into folk wisdom.

"I always thought she was one of the best poets we had," Robert Peters, an accomplished Huntington Beach poet, told The Times. "There was terrific honesty in her work and sheer brilliance in the lyricism of her writing."

Her "homespun poetry with a bite" may not have received the recognition it deserved because McDaniel "didn't play poetry politics," Peters said. "She mostly was off by herself writing wonderfully."

As a young girl, McDaniel scratched out poems on grain sacks or scraps of paper, a habit that stayed with her throughout her life.

In 1936, her sharecropper family was among the thousands to escape the dust storms and hard times in Oklahoma, arriving at a relative's ranch in Livingston, Calif., in the middle of a rainstorm.

The family stayed for four years, then followed the crops around the state.

From the outset, she saw the unfolding landscape "with the personality and mind of a poet," McDaniel told the Modesto Bee in 1996.

"I saw the magic along those sandy vineyard rows and orchards, even while doing hot, dirty work, which is the way we had to earn our clothes," she recalled.

She was in her 50s before she was published, discovered by a Tulare Advance-Register editor after she walked into the newspaper offices with a shoebox of her work. Eventually, she produced more than 25 books of poetry, and "never lost touch with the blue-collar life of which she wrote," said Haslam, who taught writing at Sonoma State for 30 years.

A poem about a ghostly reunion with her father was one of McDaniel's favorites:

He doesn't come to me on

Sundays in his good serge suit....

But put me in a Saturday town

of khaki men with Southwest

faces and rich slow tongues

And he will blow around the

corner

on a Prince Albert wind....

-- From "Apparitions of

My Father, 1887-1946"

She wrote of a teen's newfound hope in "Picking Grapes 1937" and of the early deaths of too many brothers in "Roster."

"Pies" recalls her mother's mulberry pies as the only thing to bring "a crinkle of hope" around her unemployed father's eyes.

A prolific writer with a spare style, she turned out a poem a day for decades. Some reflected her deep religious convictions.

Her poems were peopled with men named Bobby Gene, Orville and Lester and dealt with the struggles of poverty, the fear of children uprooted, the smells of packing sheds and of Fresno's cotton-picking past.

Born in 1918 in Stroud, Okla., she was the fourth of eight children of Ben and Anna McDaniel.

She never married, and is survived by a brother, Roy.

Educated in a two-room schoolhouse, McDaniel dropped out of high school and later earned her diploma. She had worked as a maid and on farms in fruit-cutting sheds and alfalfa fields.

She was fun to be around, and humor showed up in her work, said Haslam, who saw country singer Buck Owens read her "K-Mart Sage" poem at a Bakersfield concert because McDaniel was in the audience.

... us men don't have to

look no certain way

like a woman does ...

you take Buck Owens

why he looks just right

if you put that face on

a woman

they'd run her out of town

Owens' band and the audience went crazy with laughter, Haslam said.

"She didn't know Buck personally, but she knew exactly where he came from," Haslam said. "She could see the beauty and importance of the ordinary in a way very few writers can. That was her great gift."

*

valerie.nelson@latimes.com

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