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The poetry of race and baseball from Affrilachian poet Dorian Hairston

The cover of a book shows baseball player Josh Gibson.
UK Press
"Pretend the Ball is Named Jim Crow" is Dorian Hairston's first book of poetry.

Dorian Hairston is an Affrilachian poet and former baseball player at the University of Kentucky. His first book of poetry is out now and he merges his love of poetry with his love of baseball.

Josh Gibson was a legendary baseball player in the 1930's and 40's Negro Leagues. He was such a prodigious power hitter, he was occasionally called "the black Babe Ruth." But some who saw both play, referred to Ruth as "the white Josh Gibson."

Dorian Hairston's debut book "Pretend the Ball is Named Jim Crow" focuses his poetry on Gibson's life. He spoke with LPM News about his book, heritage and what keeps him coming back to poetry.

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Bill Burton: Dorian Hairston is an Affrilachian poet and former baseball player at the University of Kentucky. His first book of poetry is out now and he merges his love of poetry with his love of baseball. The book is titled "Pretend to the Ball is Named Jim Crow." And it focuses on the life of Josh Gibson. Dorian, welcome. It's great to talk with you.

Dorian Hairston: Nice to talk with you to Bill.

BB: Josh Gibson is the greatest power hitter in the history of the Negro Leagues and really one of the greatest power hitters just in baseball. So, as a former player at UK, I certainly can understand how you're drawn to Josh Gibson as a fellow baseball player, but what specifically drew you to him that you wanted to focus your first book of poetry around him?

DH: I had to do it independent study and I started writing some poems about Jackie Robinson, Happy Chandler, Branch Rickey and integration of baseball. And my lovely high school English teacher, creative writing teacher, Mrs. Schlick said, Dorian, I don't think these that are that good. Let's go to let's go back to the library and figure out somebody else that maybe people don't know as much about. So I started doing some research got my hands on every book I could find with Josh Gibson's name in it. And I just, I just fell in love and just kept on kept on writing.

BB: The book is structured a lot like a baseball game. Walk us through that.

DH: Oh, thank you for catching that, by the way. So actually, the first, the first poem in the collection, where the where the collection actually gets its title, "Pretend the Ball is Named Jim Crow," is a, is a series of nine couplets to mirror a baseball game, the top half and the bottom half of an inning. And then one of my one of my early reviewers was like, hey, I think the order makes sense. But I feel like it needs to be kind of broken up a little bit, because it's, I talked about some really heavy stuff. And they suggested that readers might need a break. And as you know, there's no intermission in baseball. But you get a little bit of time in between each inning to kind of catch your breath if you if you need to. So I decided to break it up into into sections like that. So it's it's a game between the Pittsburgh Crawfords and the Homestead Grays. It's not clear who wins at the end, but the walk off implies the home team, the Grays, took it away.

BB: And how did you find the voice for Gibson, if you will, and his family when you were writing?

DH: Honestly, I just looked within. You know, I was, I was a bit of a power hitter, not not like Josh, but I could hit the ball a long way. And that's the other piece that really drew me to Josh. And then as I was writing, I just started finding myself, whenever I would do my research was like, Okay, I gotta write a poem. What would Josh, given his surroundings and given his, what I do know about him. What would he have to say about this? And then, you know, one poem turned into five, turned into 15. And that next thing, you know, I find myself just in everyday life, and like, what would Josh say about this?

BB: It's such a powerful piece of work. It's been out for a few months now, what kind of reaction have you had?

DH: I have been thoroughly pleased with the response I've gotten so far. I've got, I've got a website, DGHpoet.com, where folks can order autographed copies. And the other thing that I really love about that website is I've got a place where people can contact me, and I just love getting notifications where folks like, hey, picked up your book. I'm a baseball fan, too, and I absolutely love it. And the biggest thing that I enjoy hearing from readers is that while it's a, it's a book about baseball, they're also really pleased with the other topics I've tried to tackle like the integration of baseball, race, grief, you know, how to be how to be a father, how to be how to be a son, and, you know, how to be a human being when there's so much that standing in the way of your full humanity.

Bill Burton is the Morning Edition host for LPM. Email Bill at bburton@lpm.org.

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