The Vermont-based poet talked about her Okie heritage and her parents’ influence on her craft and why she composes poems that immortalize the Okies.
Pamela Harrison, poet and author of Okie Chronicles (David Robert Books; 2005), appeared on the nationally syndicated radio program America Tonight, hosted by Kate Delaney.
Okie Chronicles, described by one Amazon reviewer as a “novel in poetry,” tells the story of one family through many generations in Oklahoma during the tragedy of the Dust Bowl. The collection offers a memorable portrait of life enduring and triumphing in hard country.
The path to writing
Pamela attributed her teacher for encouraging her to write poetry. She told Kate, “I had the great honor and pleasure of going to a wonderful high school and had a wonderful teacher who is no longer with us. She recognized something about me in poetry and encouraged me. That’s how my path began.”
She also acknowledged the influence of her father, who was a family practitioner, on her writing craft. She said, “My father was a storyteller. We sat around the dinner table all the time and told whatever was interesting about our daily life. Storytelling was sort of central to it all. That’s where I got the habit. It was just a matter of recalling all these wonderful things to give color to whatever I was writing.”
But why write poems instead of telling stories? Pamela explained, “I think if you’re a storyteller, you really have to master dialogue because dialogue compels the plot in many ways.
“If you’re like me, you have a visual memory, then you are busy likening things to metaphors and things like that.”
Her family origins and Okie heritage
The themes of family and Okie heritage abound in Pamela’s book Okie Chronicles. These themes resonate well throughout her poetry and storytelling, as well as her consciousness.
In fact, her mother and her family were among the many Okies who fled the Dust Bowl in a caravan heading to California. They made it to the central valley, where they all became field hands. They picked vegetables, fruits, and everything. Years later, they returned to Oklahoma, but two of Pamela’s brothers stayed behind in Oakland, California.
Pamela would later have vivid memories of hard country life, particularly her grandparents’ farm. This impression, as well as accounts of the Dust Bowl, would inspire her poetry.
“Boy, their farm hit me,” the poet told Kate. “The soil had basically blown away. I heard somewhere that at one time, the dust clouds were hundreds of feet high during the Dust Bowl, hundreds of feet high into the air and came rolling over the plains. Actually, at one point, the Congress of the United States in Washington D.C. had its windows open to debate procedures for the Dust Bowl and the Dust Bowl blew in.”
Pamela also disclosed that her family’s family was disrupted by the Great Depression. Her paternal grandfather, who had been a banker, established the first bank in Cortez, Colorado.
A profile of her Okie mother
Pamela experienced the tragedy of the Dust Bowl through her mother, whom she described as a true Okie. “I had some visual memories of the simplicity of their lives and I also knew the kind of hardships that they had endured. I knew the character of my mother who was one of the most intelligent and caring women.
“She only got a high school education and then waited tables for two years. She knew how to read, her father taught her how to read on his lap. They took her to school when she was five. They put her in the second grade because she was so far ahead. She graduated high school at the age of sixteen. She wanted to be a nurse like her older sister, who had been a naval nurse during the war, but she had to wait tables to earn enough money to go to nursing school. When she became a nurse, she was such a good nurse. She was a surgical nurse in the OR and that’s how my father met her.”
Voice for the Okies and farmers, in general
Having lived in Oklahoma and also in Colorado shaped not only her poetry but also her appreciation for the farmers, whom she also attributed for her writing craft. Pamela took the opportunity of her guesting in America Tonight to dispel the stereotypes about the Okies.
“I got to see the West and the people working hard everyday. I was awestruck by their integrity and it bothered me that in all the movies I saw, somehow the poor people were always poorly spoken and mean-spirited and kind of ruined by their failure and hardship. But what I knew of these people was that they were extraordinarily kind, honest, and hardworking.”
By publishing Okie Chronicles, Pamela hopes to send an important message.
“I hope that they too might understand that we’re in a situation now where many farmers are having to sell their farms because corporate interests have taken over. Certainly, this is the case in Vermont. Vermont has or had a farming culture but we’ve been losing our family farms here so much because it’s hard work and the price of milk has gone down and so on and so on.
“I wanted to pay tribute to them and tell the story of these hardworking sons of the earth. The basic character of America was settled by people who were working the land.”
For more information about Pamela Harrison’ and her works, you can visit her website https://www.pamelaharrisonpoet.com/