Jim Chlebda talks to us about his close friend Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel, a prolific poet and writer who, with her family, left Oklahoma for California in the 1930’s. Despite leaving the state as a girl, her experiences in Oklahoma continued to influence McDaniel’s writing for the rest of her life.
Jim Chlebda: Wilma, up to her final years, was writing something every darn day. She had a typewriter years ago but as she got older, she was just longhand, longhand, longhand. She had piles of paper and piles of scraps, piles of scraps. Old mail before she through it away, she’d just flip it over and used that to write poetry on. It’s just a part of her.
My name is Jim Chlebda. Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel is a very dear friend. I would get tickets to different events because of this publication I was doing and I would just say, ‘Wilma, you want to go see Merle Haggard?” “Yeah, sounds great, boy.” So, off we’d go to see Merle Haggard or Johnny Cash or Freddie Fender or, you know, quite a number of good shows. She just loved it, you know.
Out here in California, we called her an okie poet, a folk poet. She took that word as not a word of derision, she really wore it as a proud badge because of where she’d been, what she’d been through and how far she’d come.
She started writing when she was eight-years old back in Creek County in Oklahoma. In 1936 she was with her family migrating to California because of the mess that had been created in Oklahoma for anybody that was a sharecropper. Wilma said, “Why’d we come to California?” Well, it was acute starvation. You know, why would we stay in Oklahoma if we had nothing left? People were jumping off trains and committing suicide. I think she always tried to reconcile growing up in Oklahoma as a little girl thinking she’d always be there and getting wrenched out of there and brought to California as a young woman is just a whole different reality that she had no choice, you know? [Indistinct] was leaving and they were in it. When they got to California, they were living in like bunkhouse tents. They were picking out in the fields and she had this little box of poems that she kept under her bed and she was working in the fields one day and she came back and somebody stole this box of poetry of hers and she was just completely crushed. She had some things she could of been bitter about. She had an amazing poem that she wrote about the loss of all of her brothers. Allen gone, Keith [sp] gone, Harold gone, Kenneth gone. It’s a beautiful poem but how do you reconcile loss? She wrote her way out of a lot of the stuff that was sort of challenging.
In 2003, I think it was, she broke her hip and then, I think in ‘04 she had a stroke. It actually affected her right hand and she wasn’t able to write. I think that was the cruelest blow to her after over the 80 years that she savored her writing ability. That was her link to the planet.
As she was failing I said, “Wilma, you know, we got to keep some of this going forever. We’re going to get you up on the Internet,” and she would call it the worldwide spider web. And I remember visiting her at home when she was bedridden and bringing her oversized copies of some of the page layouts. She was just so tickled to see that, “Wow, this is a great way to get stuff out there and everybody in the world who wants to log-on can see it.” She just would never even contemplate something like that when she was writing her poems and stuffing them in shoeboxes that she’d stash under her bed.