Poet Mandar Kathe builds from a whisper to a shout

Kathe will join nearly 50 poets in reading at ‘SHHH, They’ll Hear You! Again!,’ which takes place rain or shine at Goodale Park on Sunday, April 21.
Mandar Kathe
Mandar KatheCourtesy the poet

When Mandar Kathe began last year to consider his approach to “SHHH, They’ll Hear You!,” which debuted in Goodale Park in April 2023, he felt compelled toward those things that tend to be spoken about in whispers but deserve to be shouted through a bullhorn.

“And that was what initially attracted me to the idea, exploring that juxtaposition,” Kathe said via Zoom in early April. “It’s like you’re thinking of something quiet but then you’re given the platform to be very loud about it.”

Holding to this idea, Kathe, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Ohio State, said he began to weigh those subjects that are too often relegated to the background, homing in on the gender inequity displayed in the awarding of the Nobel Prize laureate in physics, which has been received by just five women since it was established in 1895. Kathe said he took particular inspiration for his poem from an interview with astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who discovered the first radio pulsars in 1967 – a finding that earned the Nobel Prize in 1974… for Burnell’s male colleagues

Conceived by poet Zach Hannah, “SHHH, They’ll Hear You!,” which returns to Goodale on Sunday, April 21, features dozens of poets amplified by a megaphone and reading works at a distance. Initially rooted in the pandemic – “The week the shutdown happened, my immediate response was, ‘Oh, we can’t be in public, eh? What if it’s across a field?’” Hannah said last year – the nature of the concept lends itself to myriad interpretations, which, Kathe explained, is part of its beauty.

“I went in with an open mind and it was like, who knew meditative poetry could be spectacularly loud? There was that juxtaposition of calm with unapologetic volume, and it was such an unexpected symphony,” he said. “Zach is such a visionary, and he forced us to reimagine poetry, you know, to see it not as a whisper in the wind but rather a full-blown proclamation.”

For this year's event, Kathe said he has taken deeper inspiration from life as a new father, contrasting his experiences with those of families around the world who are forced to raise children amid the constant specter of violence, his thinking shaped in part by a recent visit to the Wexner Center for the Arts, where he absorbed a film exhibition centered on African freedom fighters.

“There are so many kids around the world that face challenges,” he said. “And the thing I’m going for is basically to try and transform this quiet crowd, where the thought experiment would be, ‘You are in Goodale Park. Now think what it would be like if you were surrounded by 20 people with machine guns trying to kill you. What would your emotions be as a parent with a kid, knowing there might not be a tomorrow?’ And it’s specifically thinking of those quiet genocides, which don’t get as much media coverage.”

Part of Kathe’s evolution as a poet has involved introducing more of himself in the work, such as allowing his experiences as a new father to shape the piece he will read this weekend. The poet traced this increased willingness to crack himself open to stumbling upon Writers’ Block at Kafe Kerouac by chance as a graduate student, and to the welcoming community he ended up discovering within that space. 

“I happened to be at Kafe Kerouac … and Scott Woods and Karen Scott, they were both like, ‘You should write poetry.’ And that’s literally how I got roped into it. And I started to see this process of being vulnerable, which was basically like therapy on several levels,” said Kathe, who within the form found needed emotional release as a neurodivergent person with ADHD. “Talking about what you’re going through isn’t easy, and it requires vulnerability. But there are things that build up inside me … where I have to react in a manner that makes sense to me.”

Some of these ideas can continue to build and swirl for months, with Kathe sharing that the piece he crafted for “SHHH...” in 2023 has continued to find new relevance within the Columbus poetry community, growing into a planned anthology centered on inequity that will feature contributions from some 20 writers. 

“That juxtaposition just hit us all in ways that were unexpected, and it inspired other poets to explore statistics and inequities in their own fields,” said Kathe, who shared that the subjects explored range from gender inequity in the field of warehouse management to the statistical reality that men die less frequently than women in car accidents, owing to crash test dummies that are based on male dimensions. “And obviously we can’t go back and change things, but how can we have an impact on the future? And that’s something that’s interesting to me about Zach’s event, is that this spirit of inquiry has persisted long after the bullhorns went silent.”

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