Zach Hannah wants to help the Columbus poetry scene get weird

More than 20 poets are expected to participate in ‘SHH, They’ll Hear You,’ which takes place rain or shine in Goodale Park on Sunday, April 16.
Zach Hannah
Zach HannahAndy Downing

Zach Hannah has always had a knack for discovering four-leaf clovers, and in an early April interview at Wolfe Park he offered one tip for seeking them out, explaining that you should continue searching in the same area when you happen upon one. “It’s both a mutation and genetic,” he said. “So, if you find one, you’re more likely to find others in the [cluster] that share that trait.”

Anyone hoping to uncover the weird and wonderful things beginning to unfold within the Columbus poetry scene could take a similar approach, looking to the cluster of people formed by Writers’ Block Poetry Night, which ended in 2022, some of whom have started to dream up new events with an intention of keeping the local scene vibrant.

These include Hannah, who said he hit on the concept for “SHHH, They’ll Hear You!” in the early days of the pandemic but didn’t move to make it a reality until Writers’ Block ended, jarring him from stasis. For the event, which takes place rain or shine in Goodale Park on Sunday, April 16, Hannah invited more than 20 poets to prepare pieces centered on concepts like serenity, calm and intimacy, which will then be read to the audience at a distance through a bullhorn. (Expected participants include the likes of Scott Woods, Karen Marie and Su Flatt, who Hannah said has been instrumental in helping shape “SHHH,” along with other poetry concepts currently in the brainstorming stage.)

“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. “And so, this idea built during the pandemic, and once the lockdown softened, it started to get bigger. … But then when Writers’ Block ended, that really did a number on my brain, and now I’m trying to fill that gap with so much fascination. … Writers’ Block was an era, but now that era is over. And now I’m getting weird.”

Prior to stumbling upon his first Writers’ Block more than a decade ago, Hannah had never before written a poem. What he did have, however, was a long-nurtured fascination with what he termed “the unending math of language,” and the infinite ways in which words could be constructed to capture a moment, a feeling, an idea. 

“I love the playground that is language, but I never had an outlet for it,” he continued. “I’m not much of a music person, but I’d write hidden lyrics that the world would never see. And I’m not a story person, so that kind of narrative writing was never for me. But poetry is the perfect storm of freedom for a mind like mine.”

Though he described his earliest attempts at poetry as “terrible,” Hannah read at the first Writers’ Block he attended, receiving enough encouragement that he continued to show up on a weekly basis. Early on, Hanna said his poems centered entirely on non-sequiturs and jokes – “All levity, no substance,” he said – an approach he started to reevaluate after he witnessed a reading from New York poet Rachel McKibbens.

“Going in, all I knew was that she was some big-name poet from New York. And I can’t stress that enough: All I knew is she was from New York,” Hannah said. “And then she reads, and her entire set is about Portsmouth, which is my hometown in Southern Ohio. Then she reads about a biological mother who suffers from schizophrenia … and infant death. ... And it hit my personal life and my personal narrative, which blew me away, because I didn’t know poetry could do that, and I didn’t know poetry could connect with me in that way. And I’ve had dozens of experiences like that since, but it was a game-changer.”

Prior to hearing McKibbens read, Hannah said he never cared about connecting with people via poetry, only entertaining. But that experience ignited within him a desire to do both. Gradually, his work started to reflect this, first coming to more fully realized life in “Scioto County Will Eat Forever.”

“Writing that poem changed the way I thought about how I wanted to connect with people,” Hannah said. “A young man had died in Scioto County who all of my friends were memorializing, and I was trying to connect, and I was scouring my brain, like, ‘Oh, did I know them? We must have crossed paths.’ And after all of this investigation, I realized I was seeking a sadness I didn’t own, and that wasn’t mine. [The poem] was about trying to connect with someone who had passed away, but having this guilt because there wasn’t a connection."

Hannah quickly learned that the more he softened, making himself vulnerable to those stepping into his work, the deeper the connection between poet and audience became. Of course, this wasn’t without its own hurdles, with Hannah sometimes writing poems that were too emotionally raw, and which he hesitated to perform because doing so felt like pushing a finger into a fresh wound. 

The poet recalled one Writers’ Block when the late Rick Forman – a pillar of the scene – featured at the event but requested Hannah step in for him to read the evening’s last poem. “And the last line of the poem was, ‘You don’t have to hurt for your art,’” Hannah said. “And I was like, ‘Oh, he hurt me. Oh, he did this on purpose.’ But if it hadn’t been for guidance like that, I might have been forever stabbing myself in the gut.”

Early in Hannah’s career, he said he tended to leave little space between traumatic experiences and the page. When his brother died, for instance, the poet picked up a pen within minutes and wrote through the entire process, from the moment he first took in the loss through the funeral procession and into the weeks of grief that followed. 

“And I got some good poetry out of it, but I hated that I couldn’t be there and grieve for myself. I was just grieving on the page, and it felt wrong,” said Hannah, who eventually internalized the advice received from Forman and others. “And so, I made a deal with myself that I would stop doing that. And in the time since, I’ve lost two siblings and my father, and I didn’t write about any of those events until much later. And I feel a lot better about that. I feel like I’m not just mining my exquisite pain anymore.”

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