When Ada Calhoun stumbled upon old cassette tapes of interviews her father, celebrated art critic Peter Schjeldahl, had conducted for his never-completed biography of poet Frank O'Hara, she set out to finish the book her father had started forty years earlier. As a lifelong O'Hara fan who grew up amid his bohemian cohort in the East Village, Calhoun thought the project would be easy, even fun, but the deeper she dove, the more she had to face not just O'Hara's past, but also her father's, and her own. The result is a memoir that weaves compelling literary history with a moving, honest, and tender story of a complicated father-daughter bond. Also a Poet explores what happens when we want to do better than our parents, yet fear what that might cost us; when we seek their approval, yet mistrust it. In reckoning with her unique heritage, as well as providing new insights into the life of one of our most important poets, Calhoun offers a brave and hopeful meditation on parents and children, artistic ambition, and the complexities of what we leave behind.
[A] grand slam ... Also a Poet began as Calhoun’s attempt to finish what her dazzling, absent-minded father couldn’t ... But it turned into something much less dutiful, and more interesting, a story about both the impossibility of reconstructing another person’s life and the importance of trying ... Calhoun’s through-her-teeth hisses at her father’s fumbling are great, as are the tapes: snatches of poetry unto themselves ... A big valentine to New York City past and present, and a contribution to literary scholarship, molten with soul.
... moving ... her book isn’t 'strange,' as she fears: it’s engrossing and deft in its juggling of multiple genres ... A project marked equally by honesty and warmth, it closes on a note of reconciliation, with Calhoun transcribing a recording she found amid the O’Hara tapes of Schjeldahl and her then two-year-old self singing nursery rhymes—a testament to the moments of togetherness they have managed, despite it all, to share.
As Calhoun tracks down the people Schjeldahl interviewed fifty years earlier, the names, dates, and places run together. She immerses us in a parallel timeline of her interviews in 2020 interspersed with her father’s from the 1970s, excerpted in italics. It’s fascinating to hear all these voices directly but sometimes confusing to move back and forth between people and time periods, out of chronology. Who are these people, and what year are we in? Calhoun is an engaging guide and I was willing to wait and see where she led, but it was sometimes hard to follow ... In retrospect, the beginning of the memoir is hard to follow because Calhoun was withholding information she didn’t want to tell us yet ... Once it’s clear that Calhoun is not writing a biography, O’Hara can drop away as the presumed focus of the book—and it becomes the more interesting story of her relationship with her father. The book thus becomes a contribution to a hybrid genre of memoir ... Calhoun is a savvy enough writer to make good use of the situation she finds herself in ... Schjeldahl’s accomplishments were built at least in part on his single-minded attention to them, whereas the women in his life had to divide their creative energies. Calhoun’s book is a way to call him out on his lack of interest and attention without disengaging altogether. That’s difficult and brave to watch ... no one else could have written this brave, intimate memoir in which she insists on her own worthiness to speak and be heard. Also a Poet will appeal to readers who enjoy what Granville-Smith dismisses as 'gossip,' enjoy hybrid forms that bend genres, and admire authors who take you along with them as they figure things out. Calhoun and her book are more than interesting enough in their own right.