For a book of poetry that focuses on the dirt storm darkened days of the American Dust Bowl, poet Benjamin Myers’ latest collection, strangely enough, glitters with hope. Black Sunday is as ambitious as it is poetic.
In Black Sunday, the father of three and Crouch-Mathis Professor of Literature at Oklahoma Baptist University deftly embodies the voices of Okies whipsawed by the Oklahoma Dust Bowl. In doing so, Myers tells an otherwise sweeping, and complex history in plainspoken, and most importantly, believable language.
Myers, who also served as the 2015-2016 Poet Laureate for the state of Oklahoma, spoke with Literary Life about the book’s DNA.
I wanted to do something rooted here [Oklahoma] when I was poet laureate,” says Myers. “Growing up here in Oklahoma, the Dust Bowl was always part of the lore of the place. I mean it’s always there in the background.
The Dust Bowl punished the American heartland for nearly a decade. Also known as the ‘Dirty Thirties, the storms reshaped the nation’s landscape: physically, culturally and economically.
In tackling the storms and economic upheaval, Myers found some early inspiration for his book in documentary filmmaker Ken Burns’ “Dust Bowl.”
I was just particularly taken by those firsthand accounts of the people who lived through it, telling about it. That epic struggle really appealed to me.
Dust Bowl Dirge
The Dust Bowl was a result of a frenzied land grab in the American heartland. Farmers, still heady from the profits they garnered in the Great War, expanded their holdings to plant cash crops while cattle ranchers let their herds out to graze in dwindling grasslands. But the US economy hit the skids in 1929, and profit margins on commodities fell faster than the stock market. By some estimates, 2.5 million were forced to leave their homes in search of better opportunities.
Then in the early 30s, drought killed the crops, leaving topsoil exposed to the winds. Dirt storms formed, scouring the farm-belt, and sweeping as much as 100 million acres of topsoil into the air. The worst of the storms, known as the Black Sunday dirt blizzard, hit Oklahoma on April 14, 1935. This disastrous storm inspired the title for his latest work.
Myers has conjured the voices of Dust Bowl survivors in a meaningful and purposeful way. There is no excess or unnecessary flourish in this book. Myers’ care with the details of the character’s speech—and their fictional history—makes the book feel authentic.
I’ve lived my whole life among Okies. One thing I really wanted to do was to take their dialect and figures of speech in phonic form,” he says.
The Dust Bowl carried a hefty price tag for farmers and merchants in the five-state area. In today’s dollars, the economic losses from the storms would be the equivalent of $400 million-plus per day.
There is one episode in the book that stands out for Myers. The poet, who grew up in cattle country, writes about the harsh economic reality of cow slaughtering at a time when—food and financial security—amounted to what a family had in the larder and in the pasture.
During the downturn, thousands of heads of cattle were culled from the drought-stricken lands. The federal Drought Relief Service (DRS) paid farmers $1 a head for cattle deemed not fit for human consumption. Animals to be used for the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation (FSRC) to feed the hungry, fetched higher prices, however. Yet the cattle-killing left many Okie families reeling from the slaughter of their animals.
I’ve been around livestock all my life and have been around people who have their hopes and dreams pinned on that, that just struck me as a powerfully tragic event,” he says.
A Deeper Reservoir
To use the vernacular of American evangelicals, Myers did not grow up “in church.” The 43-year-old came to belief, and a greater understanding of the gospel message, in college. His Road to Damascus moment was listening to Christmas carols.
And I like to point out to my pastor friends: There was no preaching in my conversion,” he says.
Myers also notes that some of the great writers of ‘Thinking Christianity’ such as Flannery O’Conner, TS Eliot and C.S. Lewis nudged him on a path that eventually led to God.
Myers, and other art-minded believers, inhabit a critical if often overlooked niche in the landscape of higher education. One in which some Christians have rejected as worldly and biased, to focus instead on partisan politics, economics, and foreign policy.
Yet it is this faith, he believes, that provides perspective for his growing canon of work.
(It) gives me a reservoir to draw from artistically. I subscribe to the classic Christian notion that God is the ultimate truth, goodness, and beauty. The job of the artist is not to conjure beauty and truth out of nothing, but to reflect on it. To me, that is an encouragement in the job of poetry.”
Benjamin Myers was the 2015-2016 Poet Laureate of the State of Oklahoma. He is the author of three books of poetry and of numerous essays and scholarly articles. His poems have appeared in The Yale Review, Image, 32 Poems, Measure, The Christian Century, and many other journals. His essays and reviews may be read in First Things, Books and Culture, World Literature Today, Oklahoma Today, and The Imaginative Conservative, as well as in various scholarly journals. He is a frequent lecturer at conferences and literary festivals around the country.
Black Sunday is Myer’s third collection. His previous works include Elegy for Trains and Lapse Americana.