Interview with Dorian Hairston

Dorian Hairston’s debut collection of poems has just been launched into the world. Pretend the Ball Is Named Jim Crow: The Story of Josh Gibson (University Press of Kentucky, 2024) is an inventive and engaging book of persona poems, detailing the life of Negro League power hitter and trailblazer Joshua Gibson (1911-1947). 

The publisher writes that the collection:

explores the Black American experience through the lens of Gibson's life and seventeen-year baseball
career, which culminated in his posthumous election to the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1972. Hairston
brilliantly reconstructs the personas of Gibson and others in his orbit whose encounters with white
supremacy interweave with the inevitability of losing loved ones. By alternating between the
perspectives of Gibson, members of his family, and contemporary Black baseball players, Hairston
captures the complexity and the pain of living under the oppressive weight of grief and racial

Emotive, prescient, and absorbing, these powerful poems address social change, culture, family,
race, death, and oppression—while honoring and giving voice to Gibson and a voiceless generation
of African Americans.

Hairston, a former University of Kentucky baseball player from Lexington, Kentucky, began writing about Gibson for a creative writing project while he was a high school student. Since then, he has become an educator and a member of the Affrilachian Poets, and his work has appeared in Anthology of Appalachian Writers, pluck!, and Black Bone: 25 Years of the Affrilachian Poets

Hairston talked with us about his love of Josh Gibson and baseball, myths vs. reality in poetry, baseball in Black history and culture, and the challenges of writing a book of poems in persona. 

Still: The Journal:  Congratulations on the publication of your debut collection, Pretend the Ball Is Named Jim Crow: The Story of Josh Gibson. Readers get a glimpse into your own connections with Josh Gibson in the final poem when you address Gibson directly:
My high school librarian
found the only book in the whole school
that mentioned your name
And my English teacher told me to write about you 

Can you elaborate on those lines and fill us in on how you learned Josh Gibson’s story and why it has been so important to you?

Dorian Hairston:  Thank you for that! The hardest part was figuring out when I was “done” with these poems and I’m elated to have these out in the world and on as many shelves as possible. 

I am certain that there was at least one other book in the library that mentioned Josh’s name. However, I hope these lines captured the shock of discovering that this man, Josh Gibson, existed when I had only heard of Babe Ruth. I was excited to find out that the best hitter the game has seen, not only hit right-handed (as I did) but looked like me too! Then, that feeling almost immediately was followed by a real sorrow; an overwhelming sadness that Josh, for me, felt hidden and tucked away in the library and the truth of his life was bigger than many of the myths of Babe Ruth’s. I keep comparing here because I’ve spent my formative years learning that all the cool stuff happens in the library and more people need to go! In all seriousness, I compare because often it is important to contrast what happened with what folks wish happened. Many wish certain players, who looked a particular way were the best. I prefer reality.

That last line of the poem you quoted is a reference to one reality, Phyllis Schlich. She was my creative writing teacher and supervisor for an independent study my senior year of high school. She thought it would be a great idea for me to write something similar to Frank X Walker’s Issac Murphy I Dedicate This Ride. She sent me to the library to research, and I came back with some Branch Rickey, Happy Chandler, and Jackie Robinson poems that were more like singles and doubles. She thought there existed a homer somewhere else. She sent me back to research the Negro Leagues, I am assuming because she saw my interest in the integration of baseball, and when I returned rattling off all these facts about Josh, we knew this was what I needed to write. 

Lastly, this is so important to me because Black Boys have a right to have Black Heroes. It was a point of pride for me that every time someone said baseball was a white sport, I could retort (sometimes to myself) “Because if it wasn’t, it would’ve been Black.” 

Still:  How and why did you choose the poetic technique of creating an entire collection in persona?

Hairston:   I was first introduced to persona poetry as a format for an entire collection in high school. Interestingly, my collection started as Hooks and Josh fighting over what was better, to try and make their own separate league or try to break into the MLB. What I enjoyed about this process is the ability to, sometimes on the very next page, write a poem that contradicts the poem that I just wrote, and I can’t disagree with either. The other bonus, and the main reason I chose this form, is that I can inform folks about history without having to be heavy on the facts and statistics. By the time Josh and Hooks had fought it out, I realized their disagreement wasn’t even with each other, and all these other people had gotten involved. These other voices just helped move this narrative forward and were necessary for it to do so. Lastly, I just love hearing from folks who recognize themselves in some or all of these characters: who feel them. Persona poetry lets me, I think, reach more folks. 

Still:  What were some of your challenges as the writer in switching from one character to another while writing the poems?

Hairston:  Some of these poems exist in multiple voices. I would often start writing a poem and find that the wrong person was speaking. The challenge was always finding who needs to say what and when. Some characters came to exist—for example, the baseball bats—solely because I knew someone/something needed to articulate this particular idea. I just kept writing from different points of view until the right one said it. I struggled to find someone who could play the dozens with Josh until I realized that person had to be a pitcher and someone who was just as good as, if not a little better than, Josh on some days: enter Satchel Paige. After several poems in each voice, it got less challenging to decide who was getting the pen next. 

Still:  Sustaining and juggling a group of persona voices through a whole collection of poems is quite a challenge, and yet the voices you’ve created—while firmly rooted in the era of the Negro Leagues—are remarkably contemporary. Can you talk about how you managed that?

Hairston:  Thank you for that compliment. I wish that was something I could say I did intentionally, but it just happened. When weaving this narrative together, I was either playing baseball for the University of Kentucky or coaching baseball at the high school level, and I could not, nor was there a desire to, write anything other than contemporary poems in voices that have passed on but are still very much present. These voices naturally straddled the time of Negro League baseball with one foot and the other squarely in the middle of all the messiness of today. What I loved about this project—and what I love about historical persona poetry—is jumping in and out of other people’s points of view, time, and space and allow these folks to, in a way, duke it out to see which one the reader relates with, likes, or even dislikes more. Also, I think the wants and desires of Black folk have largely been the same since we got here and they’re much like the wants and desires of other decent folk who are just trying to get along. As a result, these voices tend to move through time pretty smoothly—like jazz, if I may. 

I found myself at the beginning of this project trying desperately to separate the myth or legend from the truth. What I settled on was 
that they don’t necessarily have to be in conflict with one another. 
I can use mythos to tell truths about ourselves. Ultimately, that is 
all a myth is or does anyway. 

Still: The Journal:   Josh Gibson was married by age 18 and widowed by age 19 after his wife died giving birth to their twins. He was dead by age 35. Yet his short life was full of significant ups and downs. A hallmark of your poems is the brutal honesty of this collection, especially the things we hear from Josh Gibson and from his son Josh, Jr. Gibson wasn’t perfect, so what kind of trials did you face as the poet/researcher/storyteller in separating the mythology of Gibson from the reality of his short, turbulent life?

Dorian Hairston:  I love this question! I always try to remind people that I am not setting out to present this narrative as fact or truth. Instead, it is a story designed to help us better understand grief, race, family, and most importantly love. I found myself at the beginning of this project trying desperately to separate the myth or legend from the truth. What I settled on was that they don’t necessarily have to be in conflict with one another. I can use mythos to tell truths about ourselves. Ultimately, that is all a myth is or does anyway. 

However, I did want to present Josh honestly. He is, as you articulated in your question, not perfect. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t present him as flawless or above reproach. Some of these poems were hard to write, but impossible not to include. These were points where I struggled because I want my idols to be perfect, and that is never the case. 

Ultimately, by the end of the book, I didn’t feel like I had to separate the Black Truth (to quote my own work) from myth. If I’m successful, my reader doesn’t care about how far the homers went. If I’m lucky, all they want to do is find someone, give them a hug, maybe even a kiss, and go catch a baseball game. 

Still:  In your author’s note that prefaces your book, you write: “Baseball history, much like the history of this country, is often the story of a bunch of fascinating truths that a minority tries to cover with some rather boring lies.” Can you talk a bit about that claim and how it relates to your collection?

Hairston:  This is not a knock on all the great baseball players of the dynasty that was the early 20th century Yankees, but they did not have to play the best. Babe Ruth wasn’t facing Satch, Yogi Berea didn’t have to worry about Cool Papa Bell swiping bags, and Danny MacFayden wasn’t trying to strike out Josh Gibson. There comes a point in your education—if it’s a public education worth anything despite the constant attempts to cut our funding—when you realize that the story you were told, while not true, is nowhere near as cool or fascinating as the truth. For example, I was told that Jackie Robinson paved the way for Negro League Players to enter Major League Baseball because the MLB had decided it was the right thing to do. It comes as a great shock to discover that first, he was one of many folks who helped kick open doors so that later generations need not knock. Second, there were already players playing on teams (some of which were better ball players all around) and those teams existed in communities that relied on the institution of Negro League Baseball to provide opportunities for enjoyment, entertainment, employment, and significant contributions to the local economy. 

Robinson openly criticized the Anthem and the treatment the nation that so proudly sings it was willing to subject him and his fellow countrymen and women to. It is great to see MLB hire and consider women for roles that hold significant decision-making power and legitimize their intellect and creativity in real opportunities to move organizations forward. However, this is yet another moment where the MLB is way too late to the game. Effa Manley’s Newark Eagle’s, which she co-owned with her husband Abe, won the Negro World Series in 1946, the year before Jackie Robinson’s debut with the Dodgers. She managed Leon Day, Larry Bobby, Monte Irvin, and Biz Mackey, all of whom are Hall of Famers and played for her on the same teama team that beat Kansas City’s Monarchs in a 7-game series. Effa Manley was also rather vocal about her opposition to Branch Rickey’s means for integration which did not include compensating the teams that the players were being poached from. The boring part of these specific histories is that the ideas, concepts, or celebrations are presented to the public as if they are new. We have had plenty of models for what is right and what we must do to be civilized and that is what is most fascinating about history. 

Still:  We love the poems spoken by Hooks Tinker. His voice is compelling and memorable in the way he speaks about baseball, American history, Black history, and Josh Gibson—often mixing those themes in the same poem. Tell us a bit about who Hooks Tinker was, and can you share some insights into finding his voice for this collection? What’s your favorite Hooks Tinker poem and why?

Hairston:  I know of no other way to say this, I love that you love Hooks Tinker! Tinker was a player-manager for the Crawfords and is often credited with discovering Josh. He died in 2000 when I was only six years old, so I never got the chance to meet him. However, what I love about persona poetry is that what I don’t know I get to make up. From some of the interview transcripts and reports I’ve read about Hooks, he was a wise man and often looked at integration and the destruction of Black Ball through a rather critical lens. I do the same and thus enjoy writing in his voice. The hardest question asked thus far is which Hooks Tinker poem is my favorite. If I had to pick, it’s “The Original Dodgers.” While on the surface, it is a poem overtly painful and grotesque at its core, it highlights that Black Folk are resourceful, resilient, beautiful, musical, and would much rather spend their time with freedom instead of constantly fighting for it.

Outfield Cots
Josh Gibson
sometimes when we on the road 
and we need a place to stay
and just hop on the bus full of 
everything we own and 
ride till we stumble cross the nearest inn. 

when we real lucky
the moon look like a pearl
before the first pitch
and the stars light up
just enough for innkeeps to see
all the black on our faces
that they don’t want to rub off
on they pillow cases,
then pretend to read some sheet
that says they at capacity for the night. 

around that time we all bob our heads 
as if we understand what he mean 
and walk real proud to the bus
to ride the few blocks down 
the street to the park. 

once we there we each find us a spot 
somewhere in the outfield grass,
get real comfortable on our fresh-cut cot 
and all my teammates count sheep. 

I don’t waste my time with that foolishness. 
I like to lay back, like to count the stars,
see if I can’t pick out the one
I’m about to hit next. 

Hairston, Dorian. Pretend the Ball Is Named Jim Crow: The Story of Josh Gibson. pp. 52-53. © 2024 The University Press of Kentucky. Used by permission.

Still: The Journal:  A technique you sprinkle throughout the collection is the poetic sequence; namely, the “Home Run” poems that are letters from Gibson addressed to his dead wife, the “Bat Speaks” poems, and the “Satchel Paige” poems. Could you talk about how you worked out the ideas for these special sequences that are interspersed in the book?

Dorian Hairson:  First, the “Home Run” poems, which were a larger part of an earlier version of this collection, were my solution to the biggest problem for me as a writer. What happens when the only woman you will ever love in the way you do, can't hear you? How do you write her a poem? So, Josh started writing her letters, and I couldn’t figure out how she could read them. Then, what if he can send them all the way to Heaven? But, if she gets them, we can’t read them because she is going to keep them a secret. So how do we get them? Thus the homers. 

I followed the same path for the “Bat Speaks” and the “Satchel Paige” poems. For both of these, I knew someone had to take Josh down a peg or several. Originally, it was just Satch, and he made perfect sense once I realized there were no rules against including folks not related to my main character in the text. On the other hand, the bats were a little more challenging. I wrote the “Bat” poems before the "Paige" poems and had to rewrite them after I finished the "Paige" poems because I felt that the "Bat" poems should be and were stronger than even Satch himself. Each time I asked the question “Why isn’t this working?” I would just write another poem in response to that question until I hit a deadline. Ultimately, all of these smaller sequences were other books that I didn’t write (yet) because I couldn’t make this one too long. After all, this thing had to go to print, eventually.    

Still:  Is there anything you want your readers to know about this collection that we haven’t covered so far?

Hairston:  Once the poems are out in the world, my hopes for them are largely irrelevant. However, one aspect of the collection that we haven’t touched on that I would like to mention briefly is that what makes baseball so full of opportunities for poetry is its leisurely pace. I think sometimes, we try to make baseball fit societal norms (often wound up in capitalism) when it ought to be the other way around. In the Negro Leagues, church let out early so folks could get to the game. Today, we use a pitch clock to speed it up for fans. I hope this collection reminds folks that we are here to play, to love, to relax, and to enjoy those we share life with. As Kurt Vonnegut put it, “We are here on Earth to fart around, and don't let anybody tell you different.”

Still:  Tell us what you’ve got planned regarding the release of Pretend the Ball Is Named Jim Crow. And beyond this book, what are you currently reading and writing? 

Hairston: I’ve got a busy month in February, 2024. I started with a reading at Louisville Slugger Museum for the folks over in the Pete Reese Chapter of the Society for American Baseball Research. I’m most excited about launching the book at the Carnegie Center for Literacy, which is the space where I first read the early versions of these poems back as a high school student. I’ll be a featured reader at a couple of Open Mics in February and March (Farish Theatre and Kenwick Table) and will finish this leap month with a lecture/reading at the Filson Historical Society in Louisville on the 27th. I will say there seems to be a fair amount of hype surrounding these poems and my calendar keeps getting more and more full so I have a website where I post all public readings and engagements for folks to chat about baseball and listen to poetry. 

As for what I’m writing and reading, I’ll start with the latter. I am currently reading up on the history of the late years of the Negro Leagues and what the dissolution of this black institution looked like. I’m constantly amazed by the resourcefulness and resilience of Black folks when facing impossible odds. I’m, of course, reading a ton of the Affrilachian Poets, some of whom have some books that the ink still drying on the pages: Yvonne Johnson, Amy Alvarez, Ricardo Nazario y Colón, Bernard Clay, Danni Quintos, upfromsumdirt, and Jeremy Paden. This is the shortlist, but I find myself bouncing back and forth between research and some of their work. 

Lastly, right now I am working on writing about the folks behind the scene of Negro League Baseball, the financiers, the managers, the women who ran the show, the folks running numbers, the blues and jazz that kept them going, and of course still writing about the players that people came to see. 


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