‘Also poet: Frank O’Hara, my father and me‘
By Ada Calhoun
circa 2022, Grove Press
Families. Especially if your parents are renowned writers and artists, they can put you in your shoes. They love you, but sometimes withhold the praise and suck the air out of the room. You wonder if you’ll end up as a second-string impersonation of your famous people.
This was what growing up was like for writer Ada Calhoun, author of the new memoir “Also a poet: Frank O’Hara, my father and me.”
“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way,” Tolstoy wrote in “Anna Karenina.”
If you’re queer, you not only know how right Tolstoy was, but that family tension makes for an engrossing read.
Calhoun, a lifelong New Yorker who grew up in the East Village, doesn’t disappoint.
Her parents are creative and talented. Her mother Brooke Alderson started doing stand-up in lesbian bars. Later, she was an actress whose best-known roles were in “Urban Cowboy” and “Family Ties.”
His father Peter Schjeldahl, born in 1942, is a poet and art critic for the New Yorker.
Schjeldahl is far from being a pompous gasbag. As New York Times book reviewer Molly Young recently stated in her book “Hot, Cold, Heavy, 100 Art Writings 1988-2018”, Schjeldahl received, perhaps, the most impressive all the time. “Bruce is no longer the Boss; Schjeldahl is! Steve Martin said volume.
Unsurprisingly, Calhoun didn’t have a typical childhood.
Gay writer Christopher Isherwood, author of “The Berlin Stories,” was among those Calhoun’s parents hung out with. “One of the nicest kids you could imagine,” Isherwood said of Calhoun as a child, “not sulky, not sneaky, not arrogant, not ugly, with a charming confident smile for all of us .”
Most of us kids see “The Nutcracker” with an aunt or grandma. Calhoun saw the holiday classic with a “dreamboat” poet. An artist posing topless so other painters could paint her was not shocking to young Calhoun.
While Calhoun’s mother makes several memorable appearances, “Also a Poet” focuses on Calhoun’s relationship with his father.
Relationships between daughters and fathers can be difficult. But they are often more tense when the father is a famous writer. Especially when Calhoun, born in 1976, was growing up.
So (thankfully, to a lesser extent now) if you were a male writer, life in your household was centered around you. You didn’t help with household chores or pay much attention to your spouse and children.
Although Calhoun grew up in the sophisticated East Village, life with his father fit that pattern. Schjeldahl once let her go alone, without instructions, at the age of eight on a bus for a friend’s birthday party.
When she was young, Calhoun wanted to escape the literary life of the Village. “My typical answer was farmer because it was the most tangible and least cosmopolitan option I could think of,” Calhoun writes, when as a child people asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up. .
But Calhoun couldn’t escape the clutches of the writing bug. Very early on, she wanted to move away from her father’s shadow. Thus, his work could be judged on its own merit. She changed her surname from Schjeldahl to her middle name Calhoun.
Despite their struggles, one thing tied Calhoun to his father: their love for Frank O’Hara, the openly queer poet and curator of the Museum of Modern Art, who died at age 40 in a Jeep accident on Fire Island in 1966.
In the 1970s, Schjeldahl, who like so many poets, writers, and artists past and present idolized O’Hara, attempted to write a biography of the beloved poet. But O’Hara’s sister and executor, Maureen Granville-Smith, derailed his attempt to write the biography.
But all was not lost. Decades later, Calhoun discovered tapes of people (from Larry Rivers to Willem de Kooning) whom Schjeldalhl had interviewed for the project in the basement of his parents’ apartment building.
In a magnificent Rubik’s Cube of literary history and memory, Calhoun weaves a story of family and artistic creation.
The memoirs will inspire you to read O’Hara. O’Hara wrote funny and moving poems about pop culture and the sadness of her time (from “The Day Lady Died” to the death of Billie Holiday to the hilarious “Poem” – with the line “Lana Turner has broken down to “Personal Poem” about Miles Davis being beaten by cops).
“His lifeblood was on the page,” Grace Cavalieri, Maryland Poet Laureate and producer/host of “The Poet and the Poem” radio show, said of O’Hara in an email to The Blade.
In this “Don’t Say Gay” era, Calhoun and O’Hara give us hope that art will always be a life force.
The Blade may earn commissions on qualifying purchases made through this publication.