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Best selling author Ada Calhoun, while rummaging for remnants of her childhood in her parent’s apartment at St. Mark’s Place, in Manhattan’s East Side Village, accidentally stumbles upon a treasure trove in the form of audio cassettes representing her father’s interviews with eclectic associates of the eccentric poet, Frank O’ Hara. Calhoun’s father, Peter Schjeldahl, an acclaimed art critic once intended to write a biography of one of America’s most original poets. However, his ambitious project got the boot due to his own insouciance as well as a key person’s intransigence. Maureen O’ Hara, the sister of the departed Frank and the legitimate owner of his estate, denied permission to a seemingly antagonistic Schjeldahl to go ahead with his project, when a face to face interview went bust. Schjeldahl in his talk with Maureen, not only deemed Frank O’ Hara to be inferior to his contemporary, John Ashbery, but also provided a few tactless comments about O’ Hara trying to cover his sexual proclivities (O’ Hara was a homosexual).
Forty five years later, Ada Calhoun decides to take up the doomed project to its rightful conclusion. In the process, Ada not just finds out some marvelous stuff about O’ Hara, but she also ‘re-discovers’ her father and journeys deep within herself. Witty, wistful and warm, Also A Poet is easily one of the best books to have been published thus far in 2022. In a strikingly candid manner, Ada recounts and reveals the uptight relationship which she has had with her father on a sustained basis. Neglecting her in her childhood, her father was blissfully unaware of Ada’s friends, and in fact returned to a life of sobriety only after Ada turned six. Writing throughout the day and drinking through the evening, Schjeldahl’s show of affection towards his daughter represented spontaneous and quick outbursts of affection such as giving her a copy of O’Hara’s famous “Lunch Poems,” when Ada Calhoun was nine.
Ada’s father continues to taunt her and drive her to points of exasperation even in his seventh decade of living. After being diagnosed with fourth stage lung cancer, Peter Schjeldahl threatens to make over his estate to his young friend, Spencer, instead of appointing either Ada or her mother as trustees. Upon confronted in no uncertain terms he defensively mumbles “it was just an idea”. Once, when tidying up the messy apartment inhabited by her father, Ada finds a copy of David Carr’s “The Night of The Gun” carelessly tossed into the trash can. This was Ada’s Christmas gift to her father.
Yet despite Peter Schjeldahl’s shenanigans and cantankerous attitude, Ada Calhoun strives as hard as she can to emulate her father and bring a closure to his one gargantuan project lying in tatters. In this endeavour, a common love of Frank O’ Hara unites them both. An acclaimed author who has made the New York Times bestseller list, Ada is confident of obtaining Maureen’s approval for commencing O’ Hara’s biography from where her father left it. “I just thought, I’m so much nicer than my dad, I’m so much more fun, everything he did wrong, I will do right.”
However, a still remorseless Maureen rains down on Ada’s parade by refusing permission to go ahead with Frank’s biography. As if this was not a body blow enough, Ada’s parents apartment at St Mark’s Place burns down in a raging fire. All of Peter’s art collection, but for a piece bearing the name of de Kooning go up in flames. Maureen’s terse refusal to allow Ada the necessary approvals to put the Frank O’ Hara project back on track, virtually kills all prospects of Ada coming up with a biography of the poet. However, as Ada continues to listen to the cassettes containing the interviews, she realises that she has gained more than she has lost.
Myriad personalities, whose voices waft in and out of the digitized tapes bear testimony to the fickleness and finesse that is human nature. It also brings into focus the vulnerabilities of Ada’s own father as an interviewer and his inadequacies as a biographer. This, in spite of his stellar and proved reputation as a writer par excellence. The tapes also highlight the untold sacrifices made by Ada’s mother and actor, Brooke Alderson. Even when earning more than her husband, she doubled up as a professional artist, cook, maid, dutiful mother and an uncompromising housewife. In the words of Ada herself, “she provided fifty years of residency in writing” to her father. More than everything else, the tapes provide a startling and stunning perspective of Ada’s own worth, value and place in the life a man who was characterised by a bewildering degree of complexity.
Also A Poet – a magnificent tribute to human frailty.
(ALSO A POET: FRANK O’HARA, MY FATHER, AND ME by Ada Calhoun is published by Grove Press and will be available for sale beginning 14th June 2022).
Thank You Net Galley for the Advance Reviewer Copy.