Dorian Hairston says he may have been the first University of Kentucky baseball player to come to UK because of two Affrilachian poets teaching there: Nikky Finney (now teaching at the University of South Carolina) and Frank X Walker.
Walker was visiting Tates Creek High School one day when Hairston happened to be at the microphone during a poetry reading. Walker took notice of the poetry skills of the standout baseball player.
“I’d had a bad bunch of tacos and wrote a poem about it,” Hairston said. “I thought, I cannot read this in front of Frank X Walker, so I read two or three others.”
It was a serendipitous moment: Walker saw Hairston’s talent, and said so.
Walker called Hairston “one of the hardest working and most talented students I’ve ever worked with. I have tried to invest in him and give him everything a young version of myself could have benefited from. ... His poems are home runs. His book will be a grand slam.”
Hairston was a freshman in high school when he wrote his first poem. In a video recorded about athletes in the various Southeastern Conference schools, he said that he hoped “maybe one of the poems that I write can start a conversation that can positively impact somebody’s life. If that happens, then that poem has been successful. If I have a collection of poems that do that, that’s how you start to change society for the better.”
As a baseball player, Hairston was twice named to the SEC Community Service Team, which honors an athlete from each school who gives back to his or her community. Hairston’s activities included a community restoration project and reading books to children at Maxwell Elementary School, Sleepout for the Homeless and volunteering for the UK Children’s Hospital and Miracle League.
As a student athlete, he was also named to College Sports Information Directors of America Academic All-District team. While racking up a 3.87 GPA in English, Hairston played in 37 UK baseball games, batting .286 on the season, scoring 10 runs and five home runs.
It’s not as if Hairston stopped playing baseball and took up poetry. He was writing throughout college, and maintaining a stellar academic record as well.
As a student, Hairston was also in awe of Finney, who commands a room when she reads: “There’s a special kind of silence when she reads. Very few people breathe.”
Finney left UK in 2013 after winning the 2011 National Book Award for poetry for “Head Off & Split.”
Early in his school career, Hairston knew he liked hearing stories, and telling them. He credits his Tates Creek senior high teachers with being the mentors who encouraged him to write.
In 2010, even as Hairston was making spectacular dive catches as a baseball player and being named All-City, he was also becoming a writer: He attended the 2010 Governor’s School for the Arts to study creative writing.
His parents encouraged him in his diverse interests. His father, Donald Hairston, is a retiree from Ashland Inc. and a Williamson High School Hall of Famer, who played football, basketball and baseball for the school in the late 1970s and early 1980s. His mother, Valerie Hairston, teaches math at Winburn Middle School.
And his brother Devin Hairston, younger by two years? Dorian can barely remember a time when he wasn’t playing baseball, and it seemed as if his little brother picked it up at the same time. Devin Hairston wound up at the University of Louisville, where he was named Atlantic Coast Conference defense player of the year, with a .990 fielding percentage.
Devin Hairston is now in the minor league system of the Milwaukee Brewers in Appleton, Wisc. Dorian Hairston credits his brother with “keeping me sharp” and calls his mother Valerie Hairston “my biggest cheerleader, my biggest fan.” His dad Donald “keeps everyone calm,” Dorian Hairston said.
“My parents encouraged me to read and really encouraged me to write,” Hairston said.
Writing is essential to his life, Hairston said: “If I don’t write for an extended period of time people notice. Writing is a conversation with myself to help slow me down.”
Hairston is hoping to finish his Master of Fine Arts degree at UK. He got his bachelor’s degree in 2016, with a major in English and a minor in African-American studies. He decided to end his playing career after UK. After getting his MFA, he may go into teaching.
And he’s working on a writing a project of personal poems about the baseball player Josh Gibson, who died in 1947 at the age of 36. Gibson, known as the “black Babe Ruth,” was considered among the best power hitters and catchers in baseball history. Gibson never played in the major leagues because he played when non-white players were banned from participating. He was the second Negro League player to be inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, after Jackie Robinson.
Gibson was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 1943 and died in 1947, his body lying in an unmarked grave until a plaque was placed on it in 1975.
“We didn’t get an opportunity to appreciate the full scope of what he was capable of,” Hairston said. “... I was amazed at Josh Gibson’s life on and off the field. ... trying to survive in a country that’s trying to kill you.”
Hairston has two poems in the 2018 reprint of “Black Bone: 25 Years of the Affrilachian Poets:” the poem written in the persona of black baseball player Josh Gibson, and “For Drunk Mike,” written about an encounter with a drunk white man at a UK men’s basketball game, in which Hairston speculates about the uncompensated labor provided by all the team members who have played there — “Frozen in time dangling above spectators/who know exactly how much/profit all those bodies made for free.”
From “Manifesto for Black Baseball Players”
Persona in the poem: Josh Gibson, baseball player once known as “The Black Babe Ruth”
“never forget the 42 reasons
baseball is best played color blind
steal bases like they
stole this country
break into record books
turn more than just they ink black
pretend the ball is named