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Local History Notes

Notes about the history of Iredell County by Joel Reese, Local History Librarian.

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Dec 30

James Gay, Iredell County Poet

Posted on December 30, 2019 at 3:38 PM by Jenny Levins

April is National Poetry Month and Iredell County resident poets and poetry lovers have a particular reason to be proud this year.

The first published book of poetry in the State of North Carolina was by Iredell County native James Gay.  He published “A Collection of Various Pieces of Poetry Chiefly Patriotic” in 1810.

The introduction to the volume reads: “A collection of various pieces of poetry, chiefly patriotic, published at the earnest request of a number of good citizens for the improvement of patriotic minds. By James Gay of Iredell County, N.C. Raleigh.  Printed by Wm. Boyles, 1810.”

Publisher William Boyles of Raleigh announced in his newspaper the Raleigh “Minerva” in December 1809 that he would begin selling copies of Gay’s poetry by subscription.  

A list of over 70 individuals, including men from Statesville and Iredell County, purchased nearly 250 copies of Gay’s work. 

James Gay began writing his poetry after receiving praise for some toasts he had written for a public barbecue here in Statesville in 1805. The barbecue committee asked him to write a piece of poetry to be read for the 1806 barbecue which was also a success.

In 1807 “there happened a difference of opinion in Statesville about conducting the business of the day among some of the leading men, which put an end to the public barbecue.”  Gay continued to write his poems though usually dealing with the politics of the day.

Gay had written some of his poems to be recited at Fourth of July celebrations between 1805 and 1809.  A large part of the book was called a “Dialogue With Scotch John” in which the author tells his life story through a dialogue between himself and a Scotch neighbor. 

Gay came to Iredell County from Pennsylvania with a wife and one son settling on Fourth Creek in 1771.  He later gave the land on which Gay’s Chapel Baptist Church now sits near Oak Forest.  He died on February 4, 1819 and is buried at Third Creek Cemetery.

In 1964, Richard Walser, Professor of English at the University of North Carolina edited a reprinting of the book.  UNC may hold the only existing copy of Gay’s original book.


This Sunday on April 9th, at 2:30 pm the Iredell County Public Library will be hosting a special program featuring poetry readings by the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet Series winners.

Iredell County has the honor this year of having two of the three winners in this year’s western regional completion. Both of the winners along with poet Keith Flynn will be reading from their works this Sunday at the library in Statesville.

Bethany Tucker, an eighth grader at North Iredell Middle School was selected as the middle school representative for the western district.  She has been working with Mr. Flynn on revising her poetry and preparing for her reading on Sunday. 

Carrie Johnson is the college student representative for the western district.  She is also an Iredell County native, a former North Middle student and a graduate of North Iredell High School.  She is presently a senior at Wake Forest University. 

The North Carolina Poetry Society started the contest in 2002.  The series brings together distinguished North Carolina poets and selected students from middle school, high school, and college levels in the eastern, middle, and western regions of the state.

A distinguished poet in each region is selected to mentor the chosen students in writing and revising a dozen pages of poetry.  Later the student poets and their distinguished poet advisor present a public reading of their work at the hometown library of each of the winners. 

Iredell County competes in the western region which consists of 34 counties.  Keith Flynn of Asheville is this year’s distinguished poet for this region.  Flynn is the editor of the Asheville Poetry Review and author of several books of poetry including “The Golden Ratio,” “The Talking Drum,” and “The Book of Monsters.” 

Mr. Flynn was also the former lead singer for the nationally acclaimed rock band, “The Crystal Zoo” and is a respected jazz musician.  He has been awarded the Sandburg Prize for poetry, the ASCAP Emerging Songwriter Prize, the Paumanok Poetry Award, and has twice been named the Gilbert-Chappell Distinguished Poet for North Carolina. 

The poetry reading program is being sponsored by the Friends of the Iredell County Public Library and the North Carolina Center for the Book. The program is free and refreshments will be served. 

For more information contact the Iredell County Public Library at 704-878-3098.

Joel Reese, Local History Librarian

Iredell County Public Library

This article appeared in the Statesville Record and Landmark as “Young Iredell poets will share their work” on April 5, 2006