The story goes that the son of a legendary, deceased jazz player revealed his plan to become a musician to his late father’s friend. The elder musician’s response was, ” Man, do you know how good you’re going to have to be?” Luckily author Ada Calhoun who is the daughter of the much celebrated Pulitzer Prize nominated art critic/poet Peter Schjeldahl, is that good.
Calhoun, who has been praised for her books “St. Marks is Dead”, “Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give” and “Why We Can’t Sleep: Women’s New Midlife Crisis,” as well as essays for The New York Times and numerous other publications, has just released her latest, “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me.”
The book began, she thought, as a biography of the poet Frank O’Hara — a favorite of both Calhoun and her father — but became something else entirely.
Briefly, the story is that in 2018, Calhoun found a box of tapes in her parents’ basement where she was raised on St. Marks Place. The cassettes contained hours of interviews that had been conducted by Schjeldahl decades ago, as he had planned to write a bio of his deceased friend O’Hara until Maureen, the poet’s sister, refused to cooperate and Schjeldahl dropped the project.
Calhoun began listening to the tapes and, with her father’s blessing, picked up the baton — only to have the project stopped in its tracks once again by the uncooperative O’Hara sibling.
But history did not repeat itself. At the point where her father gave up, Calhoun began writing.
“Also a Poet” is a story that entwines bits of O’Hara’s life with an examination of Calhoun’s relationship with her father.
“It took me awhile to get out of the feeling that it (the bio) was all over,” Calhoun shares. “But then it just began writing itself , it came out very naturally.”
What emerged was not just a tale of thwarted biographical ambition but an account of a journey that led to a personal reckoning of the author’s relationship with Schjeldahl, who had been less than attentive to her as she grew up.
“I go deep in my friendships, but I never got close to my father,” she admits.
Her editor Katie Raissian (“An adorable, unassuming powerhouse,” Calhoun remarks) read the early version and wanted more of the author in the pages.
“When I read the initial draft, I felt that, among the story’s many compelling figures, Ada was the most captivating force throughout,” Raissian explains. “From childhood through her adolescence and into her present-day relationship with her parents, her observations were witty and insightful. However, in that first iteration, she was not as full a presence as O’Hara or her father Peter. I spoke with her about bringing more of her own story and personality into the narrative and, thankfully, she was open to the idea. And of course, she pulled it off with total verve and aplomb.”
Armed with plenty of time during the pandemic lockdown, Calhoun wrote the narrative while working on some paying gigs — she managed to ghostwrite six other books while working on this one.
“I felt like I was cheating on my day job with my own work,” she confides. “It was the only time in my life that I had a schedule.”
Besides the seclusion forced by COVID, Calhoun had to deal with her father’s lung cancer diagnosis as well as the fire in their St. Marks apartment that necessitated a temporary move upstate for the parents.
But she never stopped writing and the result is a book that has resonated with readers in ways that she did not expect.
“I like the idea that people will know about O’Hara,” she says, “and scholars have mentioned that there is new information in there. But then people have told me that they put down the book and immediately called a parent. I wasn’t expecting that.”
Calhoun recently celebrated the publication with a private party in the courtyard at St. Marks Church in the Bowery — a couple of blocks from her childhood abode — that was attended by old friends from the neighborhood as well as her mother and her father, who seemed quite pleased to be celebrating his daughter’s success , even in the less than flattering light that he is sometimes portrayed in within the pages.
“People think it’s going to be a ‘Mommy Dearest’”, says Calhoun, “but it’s really very loving.”
Ada Calhoun can be found online at adacalhoun.com, on Instagram at @adacalhoun; and you can experience her in person by attending this NYPL event: nypl.org/events/programs/2022/07/17/person-author-reading-ada-calhoun-also-poet.
Ex-Brit turned Manhattan resident since 2008.