The Poet is a Radio

Jack Hannan

April 2016

Li Bai has journeyed across the world and perhaps across centuries. When he comes across a bag of money in a downtown parking lot, we also meet the delinquent who lost the bag of money in the first place. The assemblage in Jack Hannan’s first novel are driven by wordsmithery, trickery, and flights of such fancy—for an instant, the signal comes in clearly, and we might all step into this world where anything is possible.

SHORTLISTED for the 2016 QWF Paragraphe Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction

Jack Hannan is the author of three books of poetry. In 2011, Some Frames was shortlisted for the QWF A.M. Klein Prize for Poetry. He has worked for many years in the world of books, both as a bookseller and in publishing. He lives with his family in Montreal, where he works for McGill-Queen’s University Press. The Poet Is a Radio, his first novel, was shortlisted for the QWF Hugh MacLennan Prize for Fiction.

“What if the world were composed of poets? In The Poet Is a Radio the question arises. Money and love, avarice and sensibility are arrested in an ebb and flow of linguistic and essential delights, as poets and poetic souls encounter one another, coping with our time and place. Jack Hannan demonstrates how poetic sensibility alters the electric current of the world.” —Trevor Ferguson

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What they say
Various authors

"Earlier this week, while decrying the literal-minded reception to Beyoncé’s latest project, a friend reminded me of that Marshall McLuhan joke: “A man’s reach must exceed his grasp or what’s a metaphor?” A timely quote as I considered two books about poets published this month, both titles containing those grasping metaphors: Jack Hannan’s novel, The Poet is a Radio, and Ken Sparling’s This Poem is a House. The former opens with an old man, Li Bai (as in eighth-century Chinese poet Li Bai), recently moved to present-day Montreal, who one evening discovers a duffel bag of cash. It’s clearly not intended for him. He takes it anyway. From there the story spirals outward to Li’s associates, three couples. Meanwhile, two hooligans hunt for that bag of dough. One couple’s storyline receives too much emphasis in my view, but over all this is a charming story about the place of poetry in everyday life." —Jade Colbert, The Globe and Mail 

"Li Bai, the eighth-century Chinese poet, didn’t like to feel tied down. He spent much of his life on the road. He got married four times. Drank himself to sleep in bars. And he admired those who, as he put it, “made nothing of sea-crossing or of mountain-crossing.”

But in The Poet is a Radio, Jack Hannan’s first novel, this ancient wanderer outdoes himself. Not only has he found his way over some eleven thousand kilometres, from Sichuan to Montreal. He has also managed to make a jump more dramatic than any continent-crossing: he has safely travelled across twelve centuries, into the present.

Hannan offers no explanation as to how Li Bai came to be in twenty-first- century Montreal. All we know is that he has borrowed some details from Li Bai’s real life in China as a backstory, and that, in more recent years, the poet has been city-hopping across Europe and North America. What happened between his historical death in 762 and the present is anybody’s guess.

Those kinds of unanswered questions are everywhere in The Poet is a Radio. The novel clearly states it is set in Montreal – and succeeds in capturing some of its moods – but the relationship the city in the book bears to its real-life counterpart is fuzzy. It isn’t just that the names of streets and bridges and metro stations have been changed. It’s also that Hannan’s Montreal is a kind of post-economic wasteland, where the remaining pockets of vitality are an exception to the rule.

The novel is a snapshot of one of those pockets of vitality: the staff members and customers of a bookstore on the brink of bankruptcy, who are all trying to wake Montrealers up out of their computer-daze. The owner, named (but not modelled) after another real-life poet, Kenneth Patchen, refuses to sell e-books and t-shirts and tote bags in the place of paper-and-ink books. His employee J.-S. spray paints poems onto the asphalt of the street, hoping to fill a whole block with beautiful words. Habana de Curra, who often comes to the bookstore to browse and chat, learns languages “the way other people put on weight.” Dwayne, the Stetson-wearing Poet of the Blue Line, drops pages of his poems into commuters’ laps, shouting “Look at yourselves, you’re dog tired, bone dry, deep in debt, and you’re all going to die.”

One might say that the book is about Li Bai becoming embroiled in someone else’s crime when he stumbles upon a duffel bag stuffed with money. Or that it’s about the unlikely romance between Habana and Dwayne. Or that it’s about a bookstore owner whose business and twelve-year relationship are falling apart at the same time.

The novel’s trajectory is as mysterious as Li Bai’s. Reading it feels as though you, too, have become a wanderer, making unexpected appearances in people’s lives, only to disappear again soon after.

We shouldn’t be surprised that Hannan’s first foray into fiction is so enigmatic. When discussing his poetry in an interview for the Montreal Gazette, he told the journalist Jeff Heinrich, “I’m not a person who has a point to make, and I very rarely write with the idea that there’s something I want to say.”

It may be hard to pinpoint exactly what The Poet is a Radio is about. But it leaves you with an image that hits home: someone passing through a foreign city, wanting both to forget and remember all of the different lives he led in what feels like some distant century, thousands of kilometres away.

                                                                                                                — Montreal Review of Books

“Tender, innovative, constantly surprising, The Poet Is a Radioexplores a familiar city that proves to be a world unto itself. Jack Hannan’s prose is alive to both the wild frequencies of the imagination and the static of everyday life. His writing is a lucid dream.”—Mark Abley

“There’s a smokiness to the way Jack Hannan sees the world, and it creates its own reality—in this case, a world in which Li Bai, the eighth-century Chinese poet, can show up as an elderly immigrant, a loner living in a warehouse by the river, in a city that both is and isn’t Montreal at the turn of the second millennium. In this dreamlike city, a handful of other singular souls, drawn together by a love of books, art, words and language, collide with Li Bai and with each another in a kind of dance. The storytelling is hypnotic, layered and mysterious, stereophonic, moving through the perceptions of these very different characters until their separate trajectories briefly converge in something like a living poem.”—Robyn Sarah


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