A literary obsession, a fraught father-daughter relationship, and a reckoning with the past make up Ada Calhoun’s moving and tender memoir, Also a Poet. When Ada set out to finish the biography of poet Frank O’Hara that her father, celebrated art critic Peter Schjeldahl, had started forty years earlier, she came face to face with her father’s past, her own childhood, and the complexity of her family bonds.
Our own Lindsay Lynch chatted with Ada about the book and her writing process ahead of her appearance at the Southern Festival of Books on October 14 at 12pm (view the full schedule here). We hope to see you on the Plaza October 14 – 16!
Lindsay Lynch: Also a Poet isn’t just a biography of Frank O’Hara, but also a memoir and a story of you, your father, and the NYC literary scene you were raised in. Can you tell us a bit about how all these narrative threads connect?
Ada Calhoun: Yes! My father tried to do a biography of his hero Frank O’Hara in the 1970s, when I was a baby. When I found his old interview tapes a few years ago I was sure (because I ghostwrite a lot and get called on often as a “fixer” and am generally obsessive and eager-to-please) that I could finish the book. So Also a Poet is about me trying to do the book and reckoning with my childhood and my father as I try and fail to do this thing I went in thinking was a lock.
LL: I’m fascinated by the research process for this book–I can’t even imagine how you worked through all those years of recorded interviews and transcripts. Without getting too into the weeds, were there any pieces of research or stories that didn’t make it into the book, but you still can’t stop thinking about?
AC: Well, the silver lining of lockdown was that I suddenly had the time to spend many, many hours a day listening through all the old tapes and going through a ton of archival material. Without those miserable, lonesome months, I don’t know that I’d have gotten it done. As for what was left out, there’s nothing I can’t stop thinking about, fortunately. Though I haven’t actually looked at my cuts file (I keep one for every book) since I finished it. Let me see, looking now… Huh, I actually feel good about all these cuts. But I do like this line that got left out:
John Button: I remember one lunch with John Ashbery when I was working [at MoMA] and they each read a poem to the other. I remember John saying, ‘Do you think there’s too much gold in my poem?’ Frank said, ‘No, darling, I think it’s very summery.’ I remember thinking, My God, what kind of literary criticism is this anyway?
LL: If you could make everyone read a Frank O’Hara poem, which one would you pick and why?
AC: At a book event at Skylight in L.A., champion interlocutor Nicola Twilley (quick, everyone buy her book from Parnassus, out now in paperback!) suggested we read the audience my father’s favorite O’Hara poem (“Poem [‘Lana Turner Has Collapsed!’]”) and mine (“To the Harbormaster”). I think those two provide a good range of O’Hara’s wit and spiritual depth.
LL: We like to finish up with this question: What is your favorite thing about independent bookstores?
AC: My favorite thing about independent bookstores is booksellers. I second everything in Jeff Deutsch (the Seminary Co-op director)’s beautiful book that came out this year, In Praise of Good Bookstores. There is no group of people on earth more fun to talk about books, gossip, and listen to book playlists with. I count booksellers around the country as some of my best friends, and I’ve begun to think that a big part of my motivation in writing books is that publishing gives me an excuse to go visit stores like Books & Books in Miami or Moe’s in Berkeley. One reason I’m so excited to go to Nashville for the Festival is that I’ll finally get to make a pilgrimage to Parnassus!
Ada Calhoun will be at the Southern Festival of Books, presented by Humanities Tennessee, on October 14 at 12pm. The Festival runs October 14 – 16. Check out the full schedule of author events and signings!