Also a Poet: Frank O'Hara, My Father, and Me

New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl has the social graces of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm character. At least that's the idea conveyed by his only child, journalist and author Ada Calhoun (St. Marks Is DeadWedding Toasts I'll Never GiveWhy We Can't Sleep), in the vexed but deceptively tender and cleverly conceived Also a Poet: Frank O'Hara, My Father, and Me. Calhoun sees her fascination with O'Hara (1926-1966) as a way to connect with her likewise O'Hara-besotted dad, who has always given her the impression that he finds her less interesting than his work. "I clung to Frank O'Hara as the one thing that was undeniably ours," she writes, "like a religion to which we both adhered, even if we didn't go to church together."

When Calhoun was nine, her dad gave her a copy of O'Hara's Lunch Poems, but the father-daughter O'Hara bond didn't really solidify until 2018, when she stumbled upon old cassette tapes of interviews that Schjeldahl had conducted for an abandoned biography of the poet. As Schjeldahl tells it, in 1976, he signed a contract to write O'Hara's story, but the biography was canceled after the poet's executor sister withdrew her support. Suspecting that it was her father's crusty personality that doomed the project, Calhoun decides to revive it. She dons her intrepid reporter's cap, brandishes her charm and, just as Schjeldahl did, proceeds to interview relevant parties.

With Also a Poet, Calhoun seems to have created a new nonfiction genre: the biographical profile within a biographical profile within a memoir. As for readers awaiting the definitive Frank O'Hara treatment, they'll find Also a Poet to be an engrossing placeholder. --Nell Beram, author and freelance writer

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