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"Hanging Loose"

Robert Hershon Presents a Poem by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

Bob Hershon

Bob Hershon (pictured here, with Elizabeth Swados, prior to their reading at KGB Bar last Monday evening), has been selecting our Sunday poems from Hanging Loose. Photo credit: Star Black

This poem by Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel appeared first in Hanging Loose 47 in 1985 and later in her book, A Primer for Buford.


this sudden change seems
too free and easy
for a Dustbowl Woman

I must walk carefully
     on good paper
     one word at a time
     feeling my way down a
                 new path
     not yet realizing

there are no inky crossouts
     no roadblocks
     of junk mail flyers
     to slow my pen

-- Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel

I wish I had the time and space to tell you the whole remarkable story of Wilma Elizabeth McDaniel.  Luckily, there’s an excellent website that will supply her biography and let you read some of her poems.  In fact, you can hear Wilma reading some of her work in her clear, no-nonsense fashion:

In brief, Wilma was born in Oklahoma in 1918 to a poor farming family that became still poorer in the Dustbowl of the Thirties. In 1936, the McDaniels joined the army of 0Okies who headed to California, desperately seeking work. Wilma remained a farm laborer all her working life. She died at age 88, in 2007.

Her story is not very different from thousands of others except that some time in her early teens, Wilma began writing poems. She wrote about family and friends and – that rare subject in American poetry – work. All kinds of work, from picking fruit to repairing old machinery to running a tiny store, all the occupations that keep small rural towns going. At some point, her poems began appearing in church newsletters and local papers. And then, years later, somehow she connected to the poetry community and began publishing in literary magazines.

We first heard of her from a California poet named John Oliver Simon, who encouraged her to send work to us. We loved her writing right from the start and she appeared in the magazine with great regularity. We went on to publish four full collections of her work, but we weren’t alone; she published many books with small local presses. In her last years, her reputation grew steadily. Universities took note of her great talent and special history and began teaching her work. National Geographic called her a national treasure. She was named poet laureate of Tulare County.

Poetry didn’t make her rich, of course, and the frugal habits of a lifetime remained with her always. When an envelope arrived from Wilma, I’d shake out the contents. There would be, say, ten poems, all written in black ink, on the backs of religious flyers, on the insides of flattened cereal boxes, on the unused spaces of junk mail, all carefully trimmed to the size of the poem, so she could save the unused portions.

At one point, I sent her a ream of 24# white bond paper and I waited to see what she’d do with 500 sheets of virgin stock. Months went by and the poems continued to arrive on scraps of cardboard and newsprint.  Then, just when I was about to ask her whether she’d ever received the package, she sent Writing Poetry on New Paper.

-- Robert Hershon
-- "Nice poem, but the back story is even better." -- Terence Winch
from the archive; first posted April 18, 2010

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark

from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman


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