It’s the year of 1976 at the Davenport Summer Retreat for Artists, and fifty-nine-year-old Arthur Honeyman—lothario, vagabond, carpenter, and, above all, renowned versifier—has his hands full: carrying on simultaneous affairs with two poetesses, composing his first manuscript of poems in years, and vacillating between making contact with his estranged son, Pablo, or just letting him be. Along the way, Honeyman’s conviction that there are two kinds of people—“those who hold onto things, and those who get on with things”—will be put to the test, and he’ll finally have to decide which one he wants to be.
Inhabited by restless, searching people, Year of the Poets segues between northern Michigan, Mexico City, and points beyond. Set in the not-so-distant past of Cold War politics, typewriters, rotary phones, and handwritten missives, it’s a story about the push and pull of kith and kin, as well as the burdens of sentimentality, memory, and denial that weigh upon us all.
As I read, I was intrigued by the idea of the artists retreat and wondered if Year of the Poets was inspired by the author's own experience. He kindly answered my questions.
How long have you lived in Michigan? What inspired the Davenport Retreat?
I was born in lower, southeastern Michigan and have spent the better part of my life here. My grandparents owned a cabin in northern Michigan when I was a child, and so we were able to vacation there sometimes on weekends during the summer. The cabin was rustic: no running water, no electricity, an outhouse…but it had bunk beds for sleeping, a screened-in porch, and it was surrounded by wilderness. My brothers and I took our BB guns and shot at bottles, chipmunks, and birds; hiked through the woods; and generally thought of it all as an adventure.
I was probably seven when my grandparents sold the place, and it’s always seemed like such an unreasonable loss to have endured. By then, though, northern Michigan had gained an almost mythic place in my memory—even if the reality was far more complex and unromantic.
So maybe unconsciously some of that experience underlays the imagining of a place called Davenport Summer Retreat for Artists. But, like most of the novel, it is almost entirely made-up and resembles nothing specifically I’ve experienced in my life. The northern Michigan setting, however, is no accident. My familiarity with the area, my unabashed sentimentality toward it, made it the perfect place for this story to unfold.
When (and why) did you go to Mexico, and how much of your personal experience is reflected in the novel?
Our family moved to Mexico about eight years ago and stayed for two years. My wife was on assignment with her company at the time. It was our first (and so far only) foray into expatriate living, but it was a tremendous experience. We lived in a beautiful house in the mountains between Mexico City and Toluca; we traveled a great deal while we were there; and we made a number of friends—mostly other American expats. Of all the places we visited, Oaxaca made the biggest impression on me. That town square, the band playing waltzes, the architecture. Whether it was to be poetry or fiction, I think I knew even then that this “setting” would have to make an appearance in my writing.
Again though, beyond those few concrete links and some other less specific impressions about people and places, my experience in Mexico was nothing like what my characters go through. I’m happy to say it’s thoroughly invented. I got the lay of the land, so to speak—a sense of the place—that was enough to get the ball rolling, meanwhile lending some authenticity to the fiction of the story.
Do you and Arthur Honeyman have the same taste in poetry? The same wandering nature?
Beyond a shared taste in poetry, places, and enduring an unhappy, oppressive father, I can’t say Arthur Honeyman and I have much in common. I think that’s a good thing (for both of us!). Honeyman’s life strikes me as generally off the grid, off the rails—a life of making things up as he goes along and getting it wrong a much of the time. I hate to admit it, but I’m probably more like the character of Charlie: slow on the uptake at times; a bemused observer of other peoples’ exploits, just trying to make sense of it all. I think I’m also guilty of some of Natalia’s hardheaded earnestness and Sam’s creative angst. Otherwise, I don’t recognize much of myself in any of the characters. Either that, or I'm in denial...
If you can't get enough of Jon Ballard's story, you can read a profile of his publishing journey here.
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