Let’s start with the word “interesting.” Are only “interesting” lives worthy of memoir? If so, the criteria have certainly changed over time, as private lives and identities compete with public achievements. Interesting is a highly subjective term, too, one almost impossible to dispute since it’s in the mouth of the proclaimer. It’s a word often overused in daily conversations (and circled in student compositions). To call anything “interesting” can be generic and meaningless praise, yet interest, as attention, is also the most basic gift one human can give another.
Ada Calhoun’s Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me is a very interesting book, which begins with an interesting premise: Calhoun finds cassette tapes of 1970s interviews that her father, art critic Peter Schjeldahl, had conducted for a biography of Frank O’Hara, the New York School poet. Schjeldahl loved O’Hara’s work and had met him a few times while they were both poets in a bohemian art scene. Calhoun loved O’Hara’s work too. Why not finish her father’s abandoned project?
But Calhoun, also an author of three previous books, has a difficult relationship with her father. It seems clear that she wants this project to heal something between them. She quotes an O’Hara line that “Now I am quietly waiting for/ the catastrophe of my personality/ to seem beautiful again,/ and interesting, and modern” and concludes that “maybe writing this book would make my father’s messiness, his catastrophic personality, seem beautiful to me. And if I pulled it off, maybe for the first time in my life I would seem interesting and modern to him.”
From the start, then, O’Hara mediates between father and daughter. What do they love about his poetry? That’s not clear—and maybe unimportant. 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.
Calhoun believes that her father’s book was torpedoed by O’Hara’s literary executor, his sister Maureen Granville-Smith, who refused to let Schjeldahl quote from the poetry. She is sure she can change Granville-Smith’s mind this time and succeed where her father failed. Calhoun’s story finally clicks into place about halfway through, when she gets a definitive reply from O’Hara’s sister. In retrospect, the beginning of the memoir is hard to follow because Calhoun was withholding information she didn’t want to tell us yet. She lingers on the decisive phone call with Granville-Smith, who asserts: “your writing is interesting, but that is not enough.” There’s that damning—and irrefutable—word again. Maybe the only response is to prove both her father and Granville-Smith wrong.
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: it reminds me of Jenn Shapland’s innovative My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, in which Shapland intermingles her own life story with her research subject’s. Like Shapland, Calhoun becomes an accidental memoirist, cornered into describing her own process as her subject wriggles away.
Calhoun is a savvy enough writer to make good use of the situation she finds herself in. And she is smart enough and honest enough to see that Granville-Smith is right in some ways:
“As I walked through the city from business meetings to school pickups to the grocery store, I kept trying to answer Maureen’s questions, which boiled down to: Why write about this? Taking the question further: Why write anything ever?
I wonder if you’d get the same answer from me, from O’Hara, and from my father. I wonder if it’s as simple as that we write to be known. To be seen. To be loved. To make rent. A part of me is writing this because I want people to know more about Frank O’Hara. But maybe, if I’m honest, what I also really want is for people to know about me, so I can feel like I left some mark on the world, however slight.”
Calhoun’s daily life is full of caretaking (including for her parents), and she is frank (ha!) about how often the creative work of her father’s generation rested on women’s unacknowledged labor. When Calhoun’s father scoffs at her for applying for a writer’s residency, her mother retorts “your whole life is a writing residency.” 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:
“If your whole life you’re told by the world to be quiet, to be small, to be pleasing, how do you override all those messages and go a different way? I read male memoirists with thousands of pages of stories and thoughts, and I don’t know how they do it. And I wonder if I want to be like that or if I’m just intoxicated by how free they seem to feel.
I’ve spent decades hitting my assigned word counts and quoting other people at length, standing back from the text so as not to get in the way of my research. But where has that gotten me? My father’s the star. I’m the good girl.”
Perhaps Calhoun would have written an “interesting” biography of O’Hara, if permitted, but others could do that too. Others have. Yet 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.
Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me
by Ada Calhoun
Published on June 14, 2022
Victoria Olsen is the author of From Life: Julia Margaret Cameron and Victorian Photography as well as essays and reviews in Smithsonian and other publications. She is working on a memoir about her artist father in 1950s New York City and can be found at www.victoriaolsen.com.