Monday, July 8, 2024

#190 / Pick Up Your Name

Here is her name: Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel.

McDaniel was not able to finish high school, since her family had to pull her out of school when they fled to California, escaping the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. McDaniel became a poet nonetheless, and was routinely denominated "California's Okie Poet." Gerald Haslam, who was a professor of English at Sonoma State University, and who knew her personally, called McDaniel "the California Walt Whitman." She has been named as the Poet Laureate of Tulare County.

Buck Owens, a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, read a poem that McDaniel had written about him during a show held at Buck Owens' famous "Crystal Palace," in Bakersfield. The poem kind of made fun of Owens and it brought down the house. McDaniel was in attendance, and she was thrilled.

Lots of other people, beyond Haslam and Buck Owens, have also testified to McDaniel's exceptional poetic gifts. Prior to her death in 2007, McDaniel published fifty-three collections of poetry and prose, and her life was pretty amazing. I know, because I just read a book about it!

Some time ago, a friend of mine who lives in California's Central Valley mentioned McDaniel in passing, and she clearly assumed that I knew who she was talking about. My friend's premise, obviously, was that any educated person should recognize McDaniel's name, and should know all about her. Of course, I didn't know anything, and that friend of mine figured that out, pretty quickly. Because my friend didn't forget that, and knew that I was absolutely ignorant of anything relating to Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, that friend just recently contacted me, to alert me to a brand-new book about McDaniel's life, Pick Up Your Name And Write.

Here's the poem that gave that title to the book. I think it's a pretty powerful poem:

Naming A Poet

Some relatives
Not close enough by love
to really matter
would command
the awkward girl with eyes
that didn't match
pick up your bare feet
don't drag them across the
splintered floor
pick up your floursack dress
and hang it on a rusty nail
until a woman called from
outside the broken window
pick up your name
and write

"Naming A Poet" © Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel
Appeared in Sister Vayda's Song, Hanging Loose Press, 1982

If you want to learn something about Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, who died in 2007, the poet who picked up her name and wrote, you can track down the recent book, by Betty Blanks. I have already given you the title. 

Or, you can listen in as Betty Blanks and another friend talk about McDaniel, or you can watch some videos featuring McDaniel herself. That should get you started! If you'd like to read more of her poetry, here is a link that will give you a wide selection!

I am very happy that my friend didn't give up on me, and that she let me know how I could find out about this exceptional poet I had never heard of. I am passing on the favor to you, to anyone reading this blog posting. Here is one more of McDaniel's powerful poems, to finish off my introduction and invitation: 

Academic Career of Orville Kincaid

Back in the old neighborhood
some will remember him if
you prod them. The boy who didn’t
wear socks until he was past thirteen.
All will remember his love of books,
reading while he stood in line for his
family’s welfare butter and flour.

But they lose him for his scholarship
years at Oxford University, trying to
erase who he was. Eating watercress
when he really wanted grits and gravy.

And none of them had read of a man
who walked out of a ten-story window
wearing a velvet robe
with a copy of Yeats in the pocket.

"Academic Career of Orville Kincaid”
Appeared in Vito and Zona, Trout Creek Press, 1993.

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