Every childhood is unique, but Ada Calhoun’s, as portrayed in her fearless new memoir, Also a Poet, stands out for its blend of adolescent freedom and paternal neglect. The daughter of art critic and poet Peter Schjeldahl, Calhoun grew up at the vortex of New York City’s East Village bohemia, a world she wrote about in the history St. Marks Is Dead. Young Calhoun, eager and precocious, craved nothing more than the approbation of her father, a complicated, emotionally distant man famously given to saying the wrong thing—a trait from which his daughter was never spared. One piece of common ground that Calhoun and her father shared, however, was a love of the work of Frank O’Hara, the legendary New York School poet who died in a freak accident in 1966.
One day in 2018, Calhoun was searching for something in the basement storage of her parents’ apartment building when she found dozens of loose cassette tapes from the 1970s, labeled with the names of famous artists like Willem de Kooning, Edward Gorey and Larry Rivers. Her father said they were interviews he had conducted with O’Hara’s friends because he’d intended to write a biography of the poet. Circumstances—not least of all a roadblock erected by O’Hara’s sister, Maureen—had killed the project. Schjeldahl told his daughter she could use the interviews for her own purposes, and Calhoun envisioned a new biography of the iconic poet based on these priceless recollections. But the book took on a new shape as she proceeded—in part, again, because of the obstruction of Maureen, who serves as her brother’s literary executor.
As Calhoun began to delve into the interviews, short portions of which she shares in Also a Poet, she began piecing together a multifaceted portrait of O’Hara, greatly loved by friends who painted him as gregarious, whip-smart, generous, sexually fluid and happily promiscuous. (The latter two assessments are most likely at the core of his sister’s posthumous protectiveness.) But the interviews also provided Calhoun with insight into the interviewer: her father.
Frustrated by the ways Schjeldahl had sabotaged his own project, Calhoun plunged back into their often difficult father-daughter relationship with fresh eyes. Lifelong resentments resurfaced as she viewed her father with redoubled awareness. When the aging Schjeldahl, who had smoked three packs a day for decades, was diagnosed with lung cancer, his solipsistic reaction to his illness rankled Calhoun, even as she dutifully stepped in to help.
The unexpected convergence of the challenging O’Hara book project and her father’s sudden decline provide Calhoun with a singular perspective on the timeless issues of family relationships, most especially the vulnerabilities of following in a father’s eminent footsteps and the elusive possibility of ever fully understanding our parents. Calhoun’s honesty and willingness to push beyond her own resentments make Also a Poet a potent account of a daughter reaching out to a perhaps unreachable father before it’s too late.