"Outside a dog a book is man's best friend, inside a dog it is too dark to read!" -Groucho Marx========="The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid." -Jane Austen========="I don’t believe in the kind of magic in my books. But I do believe something very magical can happen when you read a good book."-JK Rowling========"I spend a lot of time reading." -Bill Gates=========“Ahhh. Bed, book, kitten, sandwich. All one needed in life, really.” -Jacqueline Kelly=========

Saturday, February 4, 2023


"A staggering memoir from New York Times bestselling author Ada Calhoun tracing her fraught relationship with her father and their shared obsession with a great poet, Frank O'Hara."

Ada Calhoun grew up in New York City the only child to two bohemian parents who were very much part of the arts scene in the 1950s and 1960s. Her father, Peter Schjedahl, moved to New York after taking a poetry seminar taught by Kenneth Koch of the New School but soon his writing evolved and he became much better known as an art critic. One day in 2018 Ada Calhoun visited her parent's home looking for a particular item to give her goddaughter. After finding what she sought, Ms. Calhoun also found a cache of old tapes containing interviews her father had done in the 1970s with friends and associates of Frank O'Hara, a flamboyant poet who died tragically after an accident in 1966. Schjedahl had been tapped as the official biographer for O'Hara after his death and had received an advance from the publishing agency, but Maureen, O'Hara's younger sister and the executor of his estate, refused to give over the poet's papers and letters. It essentially squashed the biography. Calhoun asked if she could take a stab at completing the project since she too loved Frank O'Hara's poems and felt sure that she could succeed where her father failed. Her father gave his blessing, but Maureen, now in her 80s, still would not sign off on the project. Calhoun had run into the same wall her father smashed into forty years earlier. Maureen, it seemed, didn't want a biography of her brother written which included what she thought of as gossipy or just hearsay. She wanted her brother's work to stand for itself or to have some scholarly work done by some poetry expert -- some scholarly exegesis* of his poems -- not some interesting biography of a larger-than-life poet and his gay exploits around the city. (*Calhoun used the word 'exegesis' several times and I didn't know what it meant, so I had to look it up. It is a critical explanation or interpretation of a text, often associated with studying the scriptures. It makes sense to use it when evaluating poems, since often they have hidden meanings or meanings open for interpretation.)

After being shut down by Maureen, Calhoun casts about trying to get a fix on her project. Should she just stop? Should she move forward just using the information from the tapes without a formal blessing from O'Hara's estate? For a while, she felt so scolded, she considered discontinuing writing altogether. She spoke to a person she knew who also knew Maureen, Vincent Katz. He suggested that Ada ask herself what was her ideal readership or viewership for this particular thing? "I'm thinking maybe you want to make it more about yourself", he said. "It's a great project. You can make use of the tapes and a conversation with your dad, too" (143). Ultimately that is exactly what Calhoun did, but not before experiencing a few more bumps and potholes in the roads ahead.

First, her father, who had always been a two or three pack a day smoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer and given a very short time line before the disease would kill him. At one point the daughter/father team went out to lunch and Calhoun muses about the experience.

Life was precarious. Death felt close. And yet, here we were, eating good food together. We were talking easily, and it was nice. I looked at my father with affection. I thought of the O'Hara line about being out on a limb that happens to be God's arm. It is the most profound pun I ever heard (170).

It was unusual for this duo to be together without tension. Schjedahl hadn't been the most attentive father and often put his writing ahead of his family. Where he would praise others, he rarely did his daughter or wife. In fact, Calhoun, who changed her name in college so as not to be compared to her father, often felt like she spent her whole life trying to get his attention.

Secondly, just a few weeks after the cancer diagnosis, Calhoun's parent's apartment went up in fire. It was almost a total loss. Now there was no question who would be the executor of Schjedahl's papers at his death: Calhoun, her mother, or Peter's best friend. Nothing was left. 

Then COVID hit and the whole world was thrown into chaos.

Fortunately, the immunotherapy treatments shrunk the lung tumors and gave Peter Schjedahl several years instead of several months of life. He lived long enough to read a copy of his daughter's book, Also a Poet. After reading the book he wrote his daughter an email in which he said: "I had a passing and a returning thought that it's the best book I've ever read" (257). Later when Calhoun admitted she was afraid of what he'd think of that she'd written, he told her: "I hope I never confuse truth with a back rub." She went on to say that she thinks the book wound up, in a strange way for both her and her father, being both (259).

When I first began reading Also a Poet, I wasn't sure if I'd finish it. The first part of the book seemed like a lot of name-dropping. The New York School was full of poets and artists who were very creative but little known outside their own circle. I hadn't heard of the New York School before nor had I heard of the names of the poets or artists therein, so I did spend a few minutes reading about it/them on Wikipedia. This book project started out to be a biography of a poet and art curator, Frank O'Hara, but although he was always around the edges of the story even examples of his poetry weren't included in the text. As I read on, however, I found myself really interested in Ada Calhoun's relationship with her father and how it would be resolved before his death.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoy memoirs, live in New York City, or just enjoy good writing. I don't, however, want to get anyone's hopes up of having a book which explains and highlights of a lot of poetry. This is not that book.


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