Private Domain: On Ada Calhoun’s “Also a Poet”
By Alec PollakNovember 21, 2022
Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me by Ada Calhoun
Calhoun’s memoir begins when she discovers dozens of interviews conducted for her father’s ambitious, authoritative O’Hara biography stored on dusty cassette tapes in their East Village basement. Schjeldahl’s biography had been authorized by O’Hara’s literary estate and was, in 1979, already under contract with Harper and Row. Calhoun learns how things went awry: Schjeldahl enjoyed anointment as O’Hara’s authorized biographer for a time, he explains, but fell out of favor with the individual who mattered most: O’Hara’s younger sister and literary executor, Maureen O’Hara Granville-Smith. Without her support, the biography was a lost cause. “The tapes went into the basement,” Calhoun writes, and her “shame-steeped father” “tried not to think about them again.”
Calhoun revives her father’s project out of affection, but also a smidge of spite. Perhaps their shared love of Frank O’Hara will bring father and daughter together, she thinks, healing a rift exacerbated by decades of disappointment and disinterest. At the same time, she feels “something like glee”: she can’t shake the suspicion that if she’d “been named Frank O’Hara’s authorized biographer, [she] never would have let the project fall apart.” But Granville-Smith stonewalls Calhoun just like she stonewalled Calhoun’s father, and her biography, too, “fall[s] apart.” After a remarkable dressing-down by Granville-Smith leaves Calhoun reeling, she considers that maybe “the book I was meant to write was never a book about O’Hara — or even really about my father. It was about me.” Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me is that book: Frank O’Hara is its occasion, not its subject. It tells the story of itself: of why Calhoun gave up her “conventional, academic biography” and of what happened in the process.
At the beginning, Calhoun is brimming with hope. She’s sure that her father “must have been partly to blame” for the project’s failure — surely, Granville-Smith will be amenable to Calhoun’s desire to “make it right.” She emails Granville-Smith to say as much, asking to discuss the project further. And then, for 100 pages, she — and we — wait for word from the person who will make or break the biography. In the meantime, Calhoun listens to her father’s tapes. We catch glimpses of O’Hara’s life through the eyes of the artists who knew him, loved him, slept with him: Joe LeSueur, Barbara Guest, and Larry Rivers, among others. True to what Also a Poet will become, these interviews serve primarily as an occasion for Calhoun to reflect on her relationship with her father and her bohemian upbringing; each chapter is loosely organized around a selection of interviews and the memories they conjure.
Interviews with Norman Bluhm, Willem de Kooning, and Larry Rivers recreate the hypersexed atmosphere of the 1960s avant-garde. Bluhm’s stories have “lighthearted[ness]” to recommend them — he recounts a sexual escapade involving trapeze acrobatics — but, Calhoun thinks, his “obsession with […] conquest” detracts. De Kooning’s interviews are only incidentally about O’Hara — they’re mostly about himself — and Calhoun remembers that the artist had a reputation for beating his mistress. Disgusted, Calhoun turns to the “most outrageous O’Hara friend of all: Larry Rivers.” The Rivers interview offers some insight into O’Hara’s life — the two had a “mostly one-sided” affair, with O’Hara hopelessly in love with the straight, unavailable Rivers — but consists mostly of Rivers’s galling recollection of his attempts to “seduce his sisters’ sixteen-year-old friends.” Calhoun is “repulsed by […] Rivers,” which, she acknowledges, “puts [her] at odds with pretty much everyone on the New York School scene,” including her father, who infuriates her with his “failure to point out that it is not cool to speak rapturously about sex with teenage girls.”
Three tapes deep and we’ve gotten a glimpse of the sexual culture of O’Hara’s heyday, but Calhoun breaks off, unable to stomach its abuses and unwilling to facilitate its reproduction. I find myself breathing a sigh of relief. If this were an O’Hara biography, it would, I believe, be necessary to recreate the heady, masculinist ambience of an arts scene predicated upon the enjoyment of women as sex objects and muses. Understanding the lives of great artists requires immersion in the milieus that shaped them. It requires, in O’Hara’s case, recognition that the thrilling counterculture that furnished him with the inspiration and context for his art was also one organized around the subordination of women. Even so, I’m relieved that, as Calhoun writes, I don’t have to “throw [myself] into the gutter with Larry Rivers” to get into O’Hara’s head. If this were a biography of O’Hara, I would do it — I might even want to do it — but I’m glad not to have to.
Even as Also a Poet becomes Calhoun’s memoir, there’s a reason why O’Hara sticks around. Calhoun’s intimacy with O’Hara goes beyond a childhood love of Lunch Poems. We are reminded that Calhoun caught the tail end of O’Hara’s countercultural scene, was raised by parents immersed in it, grew up around its vestiges. “Rare is the child of bohemia,” she writes, “who wasn’t preyed upon by adults in one way or another.” She recounts her parents’ friends, these very same artsy types, complimenting her legs, gawking at her breasts, molesting her at the age of five — the dark flip side to the kind of “incredibly electricity” emanating from Rivers and the other male heavy hitters of the midcentury avant-garde. She goes on to describe the lives of a couple of other children who grew up in that world: Rivers’s daughters, who he filmed topless as adolescents in a film later denounced as child pornography; de Kooning’s daughter Lisa, who became a sculptor and died under mysterious circumstances at the age of 56. Rivers began his controversial film the year of Calhoun’s birth; Lisa de Kooning “hung out on St. Marks Place in the 1970s with the Hells Angels,” probably outside Calhoun’s building. These detours, then, are not simple critiques of the downtown avant-garde’s proclivity for sexual violence, but first-person addenda to the cultural record by someone authorized to make them.
Also a Poet may not be a conventional biography, but that is because it is as much a primary as a secondary source. By excerpting her father’s interviews, Calhoun offers us a glimpse into her father’s very substantial archive, “vital to literary history,” and smuggles into print invaluable biographical sources that will, without intervention, “ro[t], unheard, in an East Village basement.” After Granville-Smith’s prohibition, we can appreciate this as the principled act that it is. I wonder if academic libraries will acquire Also a Poet, if it will be cataloged alongside other pieces of O’Hara scholarship, if Calhoun has plans to deposit her father’s tapes with an institutional archive.
For an erstwhile biography of Frank O’Hara, Also a Poet has a surprisingly straightforward, peaceful relationship with the poet himself. Calhoun’s relationship to O’Hara is easy, friendly, intimate, unburdened by a thwarted biographer’s bitterness; Granville-Smith, instead, is the enigma. Calhoun communes with O’Hara — “I still feel like I’m getting to know [him] personally through these interviews,” she writes — and worries about Granville-Smith, who looms as a source of dread. Still no response. Nobody embarks on a biography expecting to spend the majority of her time agonizing over her subject’s next of kin. But any publisher, editor, or seasoned biographer will tell you that this is all too common: a biographer sets out, anticipating unmediated communion with her chosen subject, only to discover that her subject’s literary executor is, in fact, the individual of utmost importance.
We put the pieces together gradually, alongside Calhoun, who is only just coming to realize the scope and dangers of Granville-Smith’s powers. “As I start reading books about O’Hara and asking people about him, I keep noticing ways in which his work is less available than you’d think it might be given his stature,” she writes. O’Hara’s poetry is not available in ebook form; his letters have never been collected; and a respected children’s book author who wanted to create a picture book about O’Hara’s life was stopped in his tracks. Picture books, ebooks, collected letters — none of these things are possible without Granville-Smith’s consent. The possessive, protective executor is a biographer’s worst nightmare.
Copyright case law is littered with these nightmares. Shloss v. the Estate of James Joyce, for example, was the culmination of a two-decade conflict between Lucia Joyce’s biographer, Carol Shloss, and Joyce’s litigious grandson. Wright v. Warner Books, Inc. was a legal battle between the widow of Richard Wright and his biographer Margaret Walker. Most instances of ornery executors and thwarted creators don’t even make it to court. Take the Langston Hughes estate’s cease-and-desist letter to Isaac Julien for Looking for Langston’s homosexual content or Jenn Shapland’s explicitly queer My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which had to be purged of all quotation before publication at the behest of the McCullers estate. And then there are cases in which executors exert their prejudice to control the reproduction of theatrical works: Samuel Beckett (no women allowed) and Edward Albee (whites only), for example.
We meet one skilled and deliberate literary executor in Also a Poet. Karen Koch, Kenneth Koch’s widow, is an executor aware of the powers and responsibilities of her role, a foil to the specter of Granville-Smith. She models for Calhoun, and for us, what an executor can do. To keep Koch’s work available “for the long haul,” she has assembled a team to “help her manage Koch’s estate,” and she “tries to say yes to every request.” Calhoun makes a “mental note” to “emulate Karen” when eventually tasked with the administration of her father’s literary estate.
We finally hear from Granville-Smith a month after Calhoun’s introductory email. She declines Calhoun’s interview request and says, “Biography is not a good idea.” Calhoun is baffled but undeterred. She writes back and asks the executor to lunch. She asks again. Finally, Granville-Smith calls — her first live appearance. It is a confusing exchange. Granville-Smith denounces Calhoun’s project; Calhoun protests and inquires but receives no satisfactory answers. Granville-Smith becomes irate, Calhoun alarmed. Granville-Smith declares, “This is a ridiculous conversation! You really don’t get it!” and hangs up. Calhoun writes down everything word for word and presents their conversation to us, “with only minor edits,” in the pages that follow.
It is my turn to feel “glee,” even as my glee gives way to moral trepidation. I am astonished by Calhoun’s decision to include the entirety of this damning exchange verbatim. The decision is an act of defiance. I don’t know if I would have done it myself, but I appreciate it all the same. But then again, why not? Calhoun is hardly sharing private information; she’s providing an explanation, disclosing the logic behind “decades of estate management” that have affected the preservation of O’Hara’s legacy and the accessibility of his works. It feels like a violation; it feels like justice. Either way, it’s radical. Why shouldn’t Granville-Smith’s executorial ethos appear before the court of public opinion?
Also a Poet traverses many genres, but Chapter 20, which contains Calhoun’s transcribed phone call, is one for the O’Hara archive, bibliographies, and reference books; it is a priceless artifact of literary history. You’ll find very few literary executors issuing explanatory statements for public consumption. The executors of uncontroversial, cooperative, well-oiled estates are rarely appealed to for comment; amiability isn’t newsworthy, after all. The obstructive executors we encounter secondhand, through cease-and-desist letters made public and the laments of creators of thwarted works. Because literary estates — amiable as well as ornery — are primarily intermediaries, facilitators of the deceased’s transition from private past to public future, they rarely document and preserve their own operations with the same commitment with which they preserve the archives of the deceased.
The workings of estates remain mysterious and ephemeral, even as they are as important to the literary-historical and biographical record as the testator’s own writings. Without access to the records of executors’ mediation, we’re left to speculate — to assume that the legacies of authors live on (or don’t) because their works are worthy (or unworthy), that the evolution of culture is some organic, indiscriminate litmus test for “taste.” “[G]iving me that insight into the spirit that has guided her decades of estate management might be […] a gift,” Calhoun decides, finally coming to peace with Granville-Smith’s rebuke. And Calhoun, I decide, has given us that gift in turn.
Granville-Smith’s comments bridge the two halves of Calhoun’s memoir; after their confrontation, Also a Poet begins to take a new shape. Tragedy and fear arrive in rapid succession: Calhoun’s father-in-law dies, her father receives the diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer, her parents’ apartment building burns down. The pandemic begins. Calhoun is thrust into full- or near-full-time proximity to what she calls, quoting O’Hara, her father’s “catastrophic personality.” Freed by Granville-Smith’s “categorical disapproval,” Calhoun embraces the project as memoir but, newly aware of Granville-Smith’s power, remains troubled that there exists a group of individuals empowered to gatekeep her autobiographical engagement with the art that has shaped her life. And so, a few months after Granville-Smith’s rebuke, when her father informs her that he has chosen a literary executor — his best friend, Spencer — Calhoun is shocked and hurt. Embittered and enlightened by her experience with the O’Hara estate, she protests: how could her father risk placing such a significant obstacle between his daughter and his archive?
I am grateful for Calhoun’s protestations because Schjeldahl’s rationale — “I’ve already given him my old poetry. I’m also giving him money. He’s a real starving artist.” — is cause for alarm. Barring outright antagonism between testator and executor, the most important characteristic in a literary executor is, by far, administrative competence. Knowledge of and connections in the culture industry help enormously. Not being broke helps, too, because copyright is an asset like any other: it requires investment to appreciate. And unless the estate in question is the estate of a very famous, very successful individual — far more famous than Schjeldahl, I’m afraid to say — the executor should expect to labor for cultural, not economic, gain. This isn’t to say that muses and intellectual soulmates and “starving artist[s]” haven’t been excellent stewards in the past, but they are, I would argue, exceptions to the rule. Nobody wants to have to hunt down an uncommunicative, off-the-grid executor. It might be whimsical and exciting to start, but it gets old. It’s exhausting and expensive. We — biographers, scholars, editors — are eventually forced to give up and set our sights on other projects, leaving uncommunicative estates to languish.
Schjeldahl relents (“It was just an idea,” he grumbles), pulls out a book of W. H. Auden poems, and reads “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” aloud. Calhoun reproduces the poem’s first six lines and then pointedly interrupts the scene to foreground the material and legal conditions of possibility for the memoir we hold in our hands. She informs us that her father “read the whole poem,” but that “for permission to share these six lines I had to sign two contracts and pay $285.37. So for the rest, please look up the poem for free on the Internet and imagine.” Her interjection is abrupt but truthful — truer, even, than Calhoun can fully appreciate within the confines of her book.
US copyright law decrees that, after a limited time, creative works enter the public domain where subsequent creators can use them — reproduce them, adapt them, stage them — without appealing to copyright owners for permission and without paying fees. The law’s design acknowledges that creativity begets creativity; that old art mediates, influences, and enables new art; and that unencumbered access to the creations of our forebears is essential to replenish the “celebrated storehouse of culture.” But 50 years of copyright term extensions have dramatically increased the powers of literary estates. Auden’s writings won’t be in the public domain until 2043 at the earliest; we can only imagine the cost of quoting “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” (a total of 65 lines) in full. Perhaps some readers will “look up the poem for free on the Internet,” but most won’t. The scene is irreparably altered, our imaginations circumscribed by copyright law.
If biography is at the mercy of protective estates, increasingly emboldened by copyright extensions, what is the future of the form? “Conventional, academic biography” is in jeopardy, no doubt. Under these circumstances, unobstructed archival access and blanket quotation permissions cannot be prerequisites for biographical work, lest we cede our engagement with literary forebears to executors’ circumscribing whims. But Also a Poet furnishes us with an alternative. “Aren’t all stories,” Calhoun ventures, “ultimately […] about the people writing them?” If biography is an exercise in memory and commemoration, Also a Poet reminds us that biography — even the most “conventional” biography — is an exercise in remembering by and commemorating for. Foregrounding the reality of subjective mediation, Also a Poet suggests, might be a way of transforming the genre to accommodate an ever more restrictive copyright regime.
Also a Poet is one of many hybrid memoir-biographies that have been published in the last five years, but what distinguishes it from likeminded projects is its explicit provocation for the future of the form: memoir-biography is a genre that may very well allow us to smuggle biographical reckoning under the copyright radar — and to make the conditions of literary history’s adjudication more transparent in the process.
Alec Pollak is a writer and graduate student in English at Cornell University.
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