DURHAM — A new book of sonnets about race and identity in the South cried out for a cover as striking as the words inside. So Durham printer Dave Wofford has been scouring eBay listings, Craigslist posts, junk shops and thrift stores for an apt paper-making material: Confederate flags - the Stars and Bars themselves.
"We don't want ones that are 1850s-old, but ones that are old enough not to be made in the last few years," Wofford said, adding: "I guess some people would consider it, not sacred, but weird to cut it up."
These poems from Kathryn Stripling Byer, North Carolina's poet laureate from 2005 to 2009, grew out of the racial violence she witnessed as a child in southwestern Georgia, and the sense she tried to make of it decades later while living in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The first sonnet in the collection focuses on the battle flag her father hangs in a family window, and their conflicting responses to its meaning. The poems have appeared in print before but never as a book.
"For years," Byer writes in the book's introduction, "I tried to write about the racial conflict in my Southwest Georgia county as I experienced it growing up in the 1950's and 60's, but I didn't trust my own voice to speak honestly about living in the midst of that turbulent time. Who was I then? Even more important, who was I now?"
Byer decided they should reappear after this summer's flap over Shirley Sherrod, who grew up in a nearby Georgia county and whose father was killed by a white neighbor in the Jim Crow South. Sherrod, a black U.S. Department of Agriculture official, was fired this summer after a conservative website used selectively edited video to accuse her of racism against a white farmer. (She was later offered her job back, but she declined).
Some will hate it
Published by small, Durham-based Jacar Press, the flag-covered poems are expected to appear in a limited edition of roughly 100 copies, all handmade, hand-sewn and signed. They'll sell for about $100, said publisher Richard Krawiec. The proceeds will benefit writing workshops for youth, probably in the Triangle, that focus on ethnic identity.
"I think probably people who are still holding on to the Civil War are going to hate it," Krawiec said. "That's part of the point, too. I think people on the left who are upset by continuing racism are going to see as an appropriate way to deal with that issue."
The book won't be finished until the spring.
Wofford said parts of the cover will be made into finer paper pulp, while other parts will be left as discernible pieces of flag.
The pattern will be subtle on purpose, he said, giving background or context for thepoems inside, raising the question: "What does the flag mean in 2010?"
At first glance, the idea of cutting up flags didn't trouble Thomas Smith, commander of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, North Carolina Division.
Sacrilege? Maybe not
"I don't see why it should," he said. "All too often we're a little too sensitive. We have got over 3,000 people, members in the state of North Carolina, and you may have one or two oddballs who get bent out of shape. But I wouldn't worry too much about it."
Byer, who is now poet in residence at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee, backed the idea, too.
She found her father's flag at home last week. And although it's faded and torn, she's sending the pieces, hoping they will make something new.
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