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After Lunch with Frank O'Hara

Craig Cotter
Plot Summary

After Lunch with Frank O'Hara

Craig Cotter

Fiction | Novel/Book in Verse | Adult | Published in 2021

Plot Summary
After Lunch with Frank O’Hara is a 2014 collection of poems by American poet Craig Cotter. Comprising 51 new poems (mostly short lyrics), After Lunch with Frank O’Hara is a meditation on the great American poet’s importance to Cotter as a literary influence and as an LGBTQ pioneer. Many of the volume’s poems address O’Hara or his work directly, while others bear his influence as Cotter explores his own personal relationship to gay love and sex and to the poetic life. The collection is introduced by Felice Picano, a friend of O’Hara’s, and Cotter includes an afterword about his research process and inspirations. Cotter has been nominated for 15 Pushcart Prizes, and After Lunch with Frank O’Hara was a finalist for the National Poetry Series.

The collection is divided into four sections: the first, “Talking to the Sun,” is most firmly embedded in an engagement with O’Hara. For example, “Personal Poem (for Frank O’Hara),” as well as being dedicated to the poet and named after one of his poems, builds to Cotter’s explicit attempt to identify with O’Hara. Beginning with a memory of a “street hooker” named Javier, his “tiny uncut cock flopping soft,” Cotter alternates between memories of his life as a gay man and anecdotes from O’Hara’s poetic life, particularly the encouragement O’Hara received from John Ashbery. The poem concludes: “John Ashbery/wants me to keep going.”

This self-consciously absurd attempt to identify himself with O’Hara through Ashbery becomes a recurring motif of the collection. Among other things, it stands as a comic and melancholy reflection on Cotter’s sense of falling short in comparison to his hero. The collection’s title poem, “After Lunch (for Frank O’Hara)” wallows playfully in this feeling:

“You wrote at lunch
to stay thin
so your ass looked good in pants
so everyone loved you.

“I eat lunch, no one wants me,
write after.  Though so many days
with your perfect ass
no one wanted you either.”

The poem’s conclusion takes a sadder turn: “I’ve outlived you by five years / but not out-written you.”

The center of After Lunch with Frank O’Hara is its longest poem, “Good Friday,” in which Cotter sets out a poetic manifesto explicitly modeled on O’Hara’s essay “Personism”:

“Here’s something new:
No symbol, no image,

“Presence unkind and dull.
Transcend your own life.”

Later, Cotter wrestles with O’Hara’s legacy: “when you get rid of symbol, image / and an interesting presence...then you really gotta consider / what you’re left with.”

Meanwhile, the poem considers the way O’Hara’s legacy as an “out” gay pioneer has been bowdlerized by wondering whether the poet topped or bottomed (or enjoyed anal sex at all): “all those fucking homages and memoirs / and no one gets to that gay fact”.

Elsewhere, O’Hara is simply a companion for Cotter, and vice versa, as Cotter researches the life of a poet who was perennially lonely:

“You should be in an empty chair
in front of me, 82, no one

“knowing who you are except me.
You’d be spry,

“still walking unassisted, still smoking
(but no Gauloises or Picayunes).

“(or I’d give you those 2 packs
Arthea found online).
It should be just us
and probably is.”

From here, the collection appears to move away from O’Hara as it turns to a consideration of the things that separate Cotter from his hero: Cotter’s relative financial stability and sexual freedom. Cotter admires O’Hara for the fact that he “lived ‘out’ and was unapologetically gay,” long before it was safe to do so. Cotter remains in dialogue with O’Hara as he considers the different challenges he faces in response to the question of “how to be out, unapologetic, and get it in the art.”

One response is a frank discussion of sex. We learn about a “little freak” named Candido with a “giant dick,” and Cotter’s New Year’s Resolution to “increase my use of boy whores.”  Another response is to reflect on the importance of Cotter’s romantic relationships:

“I’m afraid I’ll outlive Mano.
I don’t want to bury him or see his dead body.
I don’t want him to not be in the apartment.”

Ultimately, Cotter lands on guilt as a response to his own freedoms, sexual and financial. In “advice” he offers playful suggestions to friends (“paul spend more time in / your green grand torino”; “sarah / be a boss”; “helen / go back in time / skip the farm / go to high school”) before landing slyly on a query about his own position: “how did i/ get so rich.”

In his afterword, Cotter explains how he sees his debt to O’Hara, crediting the poet with lending him “new freedom” from “the old rules of the self-contained machine.” Cotter suggests that his collection is an attempt to “move forward with…poetry respecting what he taught us.”

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