The Architecture of Persona: Steven Price Writes Houdini
“I didn’t want to just hit the peaks of his life, I wanted to hit a number of the troughs too, small moments that aren’t necessarily talked about or discussed or described in the biographies but that he, of course, experienced. They tend to be incredibly important to us as individuals. Just that flicker of sunlight on the grass that you remember from your childhood, which means nothing to you except it’s such an extraordinarily warm, protective moment. Houdini would have had these too.”
At 135 pages, Steven Price’s “Anatomy of Keys” is no slim volume of verse; how could it be? Tracing the track of a famous life full of remarkable acts, Price transforms a historical figure into a fictional character, rendering his story in verse. Harry Houdini, whose incredible escapes made him one of the most well-known men of his day, is revealed in Price’s work to have been a playful child, a vulnerable performer, a loyal husband, a grief-besieged son, as well as the escape artist we know, that man of the modern age. So Price explores the architecture of persona, challenging our assumptions about headline makers and revealing the human interior of fame:
Offstage, he looked
too ordinary in his strength to be so;
short and stumpish like a pugilist, he lived
by his fists, all ox-neck and thick root,
all barrel-chest, battered like a kitchen chair.
We find ourselves immersed in a work of imagination, a fictionalized biography that proceeds from Houdini’s childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood, exploring the years Houdini’s escapes were known around the world.
Through closed forms — the sonnet, the ghazal — and intricate interior rhythms, regulated rhyme schemes, free verse, prose poems, sections in series, Price crafts a collection of astute observations:
So that, trembling, fingering my skin, I began to doubt: had I
accomplished this, who was not remarkable, no more than others?
This, which sang in me for a time, then fell silent.
Months of dust and rain, abandoned, in flickering railcars. It is true: to
live without illusion is to live without hope.
Thus the fragility of the self is alive in even the most incredible acts. Price gives us a three-dimensional Harry Houdini with an interior life as rich as his performing one.
Though “Anatomy of Keys” is not a biography, not in the technical sense, Steven Price’s capacity for empathy offers something equally compelling: a life’s story rich in detail, which challenges our expectations and lingers long after we finish the final line.
— Carlin M. Wragg, Editor
Note: This transcript has been slightly modified to enhance readability.
Carlin M. Wragg: Before we read one of your poems, perhaps you could speak a little about how you came to write a book about Houdini’s life?
Steven Price: Well, I stumbled on the man through happy accident. As I started looking deeper into his life it became clear to me that a number of the things I wanted to do as a young poet I could do more effectively using Houdini as a foil. I don’t pretend in any way that the book I’ve written is a true biography of Houdini. It charts a number of his actual circumstances but a number of the things in the book are fictional — it pretends to speak in his voice — it does a number of things that of course no accurate or respected biography would be doing.
My own family and my own circumstances were also an influence. On my father’s side, we come from a long line of locksmiths. We own Victoria’s oldest — in fact Canada’s oldest — privately owned security company. So I grew up surrounded by keys and locks. As a young poet I wanted to explore some of the mythology of “On my father’s side, we come from a long line of locksmiths…so I grew up surrounded by keys and locks.”where I came from, but when I tried to write about it it seemed to keep diminishing in scope and size. I started becoming very frustrated with it. It seemed as if, too often, the poems were becoming devoured by the “I” or the “me” that takes over the poem. I started trying to step back from some of that, and by using Houdini as a foil to explore some of these things I managed to just get that arms-length distance that I think young poets want, or long for.
CMW: You mentioned before that biography in verse is a feature of Canadian literature. Who were the people you were looking to as models when you were working on this project?
SP: Yes, there’s a thriving subgenre of Canadian poetry that does this. The big one that everyone talks about is by Michael Ondaatje who is, I think, better known as a novelist south of the border. Up here he’s also known as a poet, and that book is called The Collected Works of Billy the Kid which won the Governor General’s Award back in the early Seventies. He shared it with another poet who’d also written a book about Billy the Kid. Both of them shared it that year, which was interesting.
Gwendolyn MacEwen wrote a very famous series of poems about T. E. Lawrence, Lawrence of Arabia. There are a whole bunch of them: Paulette Jiles, Lorna Crozier, Kenneth Sherman, — there are a lot of them. I’m not sure to what extent those books were working as influences on my book except to the extent that I was reading them and aware of them.
One of the things I wanted to be sure that I was doing was writing a book that was a little bit different from the others. The Ondaatje book and the Lawrence book cast long, long shadows. I was just trying to write something that steps to the side of them. It’s still going on today. There’s another wonderful book that was published just a year ago, or a year-and-a-half ago, by a young poet named Rob Winger which is all about Eadweard Muybridge, the photographer. It seems sometimes that it’s a rite of passage for young Canadian poets.
CMW: And yet, when I came to it I was thinking, “this is so unique,” and I’m south of the border. It’s really interesting to think about how unique the literature of different countries is, even if they’re very close geographically, about how unique and different the concerns can be. You said you studied in the States. What was it like, as someone working in the tradition of another country, to go into a different place and to study the literature, if not of that place, in that place? Did you find there was a conversation you were having with yourself about identity?
SP: Absolutely. We Canadians are pretty self-effacing, I think, as a nation, and we joke that the most patriotic Canadians we meet are always living abroad. I certainly felt that, even as a grad student — I was a grad student down in the States for a couple of years, down in Virginia — and I certainly felt that at the time. I tended to write a lot of poems about Canada. I would write poems about exile. Of course I wasn’t in exile, except for a self-chosen kind. So this sort of thing started to fuel my way of thinking about myself.
Living up here, it doesn’t work in the same way for me. That’s not to say we don’t have some extraordinary patriotic poets, and not patriotic in a propagandistic or a poor way. In the Sixties we had a very strong push with a number of major poets who were establishing a kind of national tradition, or trying to sift through and find the national tradition that was already there but hadn’t been recognized. A lot of Canadian Studies were born in the Sixties. A number of our great poets, such as Al Purdy — I don’t know if he’s gotten south of the border — Margaret Atwood, started in this time, Michael Ondaatje, Dennis Lee, a number of these poets were writing very, very “Canadian” poems, capital “C” “Canadian” poems. That isn’t really the ongoing concern anymore, in the same way.
CMW: How do you think the concern has changed since then?
SP: I don’t know, I can only speak for myself, and that’s to say that coming in at the time I’m coming in at now, as a young poet, I feel like there’s a tradition that exists behind me that I can plug into to the extent that I need to. There “…in some ways we’re pretty luckily situated at a crossroads between American influences and British influences. There’s also a strong Canada-Australia link, so we get a lot of different writings that we can plug into and feed off of. It’s not a purely Canadian influence that we tend to work from.”seems to be something going on with young Canadian poets today, and I hate to generalize because everyone has their own experiences, but in my experience, and a number of the other young poets that I’ve grown up with and I’ve gotten to know, in some ways we’re pretty luckily situated at a crossroads between American influences and British influences. There’s also a strong Canada-Australia link, so we get a lot of different writings that we can plug into and feed off of. It’s not a purely Canadian influence that we tend to work from. We can take the American poets that are of interest to us, or the British poets, and use them in whatever way seems to be working.
SP: The real regret, I think, as Canadian poets… Let me try not to speak on behalf of Canadian poets; from my own experience, I feel very much like I live in the provinces, I don’t live at the center of the world. I remember when I was in Virginia we would travel up to DC, or any of those places, and it felt very much like it was the center of an important world, the center of an empire. I imagine if you lived in London, and certainly for you, living in New York, there’s that feeling like the world comes to you. Here it really feels like the world goes elsewhere and you’re a distant satellite of it. Which can feed poetry, as well as frustrate.
CMW: One of the things you said just a moment ago, about being at the crossroads of a number of different English poetic traditions, made me wonder if you noticed your language being affected by these different poetries coming from different English-speaking countries.
SP: It seems to me that the poets a young poet feeds off of, when the young poet looks into their work and there’s something there that fuels them, is because they’re seeing something in those poets that’s already in themselves. It may be very small at the time, still just a seed, but it’s already there in their work, it’s just come to fruition in the other poet’s work; they’re fastening onto something that’s being echoed or answered in themselves.
SP: I can’t imagine that the rhythms or the diction, just the general way of shaping or sculpting the language can’t help but affect the way that the younger poet begins to work, and begins to write. But there’s already a voice in “You move from poet to poet as you come across them and there’s something in them that you’re feeding off of.”the younger poet that they’re bringing to that new influence, and when they take what they can from that influence and then they move on to another influence they’re bringing a new mixture to the third influence. You move from poet to poet as you come across them and there’s something in them that you’re feeding off of.
So imagine, for example, if you’re an American poet and you come across an absolutely wonderful Australian poet; suddenly everything lights up for you in a new way again. I can’t imagine that something bizarre and seemingly Australian in the language itself can’t help but sneak into your language, one way or another. But once you start to iron that out and get through that a little it starts to slip into the background or fit into a kind of curious pattern that seems all your own.
CMW: Maybe we can turn now to your work. Would you read about the seated rope escape?
SP: None of the poems have titles, just numbers. So this is eighteen point one. It’s about a seated rope escape in Boston in January 1906.
CMW: At the bottom of this poem, in parentheses, it says, “Seated Rope Escape, Boston, January 1906.” So this is the animation of a real moment, one of Houdini’s tricks. How did you select the moments, the historical moments, this one for example, that you used and animated in the book, or at least in this poem?
SP: Well, now, the rope escape, Boston, January 1906, is made up. I have no idea if he was in Boston in 1906 and if he did a seated rope escape while he was there, but it’s a description of a seated rope escape. I was just anchoring it to that particular time because I needed to be referencing a particular rope escape; I wanted the appearance of historical accuracy to work on the reader in some way or another.
What interested me in the poem was the transition, the flip from the rope escape itself, which was just him working on stage in front of an audience, suddenly to enter, say with a fast zoom through his eye into his brain, to see what he was really doing, which was struggling with his inner life, his inner demons, which is what he did every night. The reason he was so fascinating to watch was because he was fighting for his life every night. Even, of course, if it was something like a seated rope escape in which his life itself wasn’t at stake, his life was still at stake every time: if he failed just once, he would say often, his career would be ruined.
SP: His reputation was based on the fact that nothing could hold Houdini. Nothing. So every time he got up and performed he was taking a tremendous risk. It’s an amazing thing to think about. Imagine if every time we wrote a poem or published a poem, if it wasn’t the perfect poem we would never be published again and no one would ever read us. I mean it’s a crazy kind of life that he set out for himself. The stakes were “His reputation was based on the fact that nothing could hold Houdini. Nothing. So every time he got up and performed he was taking a tremendous risk. It’s an amazing thing to think about.”high, but the successes, the rewards, were extraordinary also. So I wanted to take a look at the way that the escape itself opened up his own childhood, how it took him right back to this primal, this essential place, which was Appleton for him, at least in my Houdini, it was his idyllic center.
CMW: And yet in the poem itself the idyllic center isn’t all that idyllic; he’s being chased, as you said, and he’s fighting for his life. Is there a way in which the imagining of Appleton was exciting for you? How did you come to know that place?
SP: You know, one of the things I desperately wanted to do was to go there and spend some time there, but being a young poet and a starving student I simply didn’t have the money or the time to get out there. So I never did get there. Happily we live in an age with the Internet where you can research everything to no end. So the Appleton that was there in my mind and that I write about is an Appleton based on archival photographs, anecdotes from Houdini’s own life, and then simply my own transference of my own childhood, my own experiences, onto Houdini’s shoulders.
CMW: I’d love to move on to the poem that begins “such newsreels flicker still.” The opening image is his mother in a crowd. You mentioned before how important his mother was to him in his life, I wondered if you could read this and then maybe we could talk a little bit about that.
SP: Sure. This is poem number seven. [Reads "VII" from Anatomy of Keys]
CMW: This scene moves through time in a way that I think the book moves through time: you’re in a “present moment” and then, as in the other poem that we read, you move back and then move forward again. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the choice of nonlinearity in telling this story.
SP: My real interest was to explore Houdini the character, or the alter ego, in the book. Of course, I was doing it through his life’s story but I didn’t want to just hit the peaks of his life, I wanted to hit a number of the troughs too, small moments that aren’t necessarily talked about or discussed or described in the biographies but that “…that flicker of sunlight on the grass that you remember from your childhood, which means nothing to you except it’s such an extraordinarily warm, protective moment. Houdini would have had these too…”he, of course, experienced. They tend to be incredibly important to us as individuals. Just that flicker of sunlight on the grass that you remember from your childhood, which means nothing to you except it’s such an extraordinarily warm, protective moment. Houdini would have had these too, but of course the biographies don’t talk about those because they tend to be very private. The biographies talk about things like his famous bridge escapes. So I wanted the book to chart some of these moments. One of the ways to access that is by acknowledging his public persona, his public life as well, and through this accessing the private.
SP: About this particular poem, I have no idea if he ever held his breath under the bathtub when he was a child, I have no idea if his mother ever had a bad experience in the Danube when she was young in Budapest, but it seemed illustrative of something he himself felt toward her and she must have felt watching him succeed and pursue this life that he’d chosen, which carried great risk, great personal risk. There was so much chance for him to injure himself and hurt himself but she herself, in many ways, benefited from what he went through. He would share vast sums with her when he became successful, he put her up in style, he gave her a big house to live in, and all of this money was coming from her son risking his life publicly, repeatedly, over and over and over.
CMW: Was she at his performances regularly?
SP: Well, this poem charts that very moment when he conquered New York. He had taken over all of the west coast theaters and was headlining those, but he had never returned to his hometown of New York and been a big success. So he returns to New York, and in order to drum up interest he does this bridge escape. Thousands and thousands of people attend the bridge escape. His mother is one of the people and she’s standing right in the front watching him do this bridge escape, which was very dangerous, many imitators drowned trying to imitate what he would do, which would be to leap off a bridge in handcuffs and escape underwater.
It’s a great success, everyone’s talking about him in the papers, he’s finally conquered New York, but in his private diary under that date the only thing that he writes — he was very proud of his own accomplishments and he would never hesitate to talk in his diary about how much everyone loved him — for that particular day the only thing he wrote for the entry was, “Ma saw me jump,” exclamation point. That was it. So the important thing for him when he was returning to New York and conquering his hometown, conquering New York, taking it over, headlining, the essential point was that his mother saw what he was, what he had accomplished. So that’s what this poem was trying to explore, the curious relationship they must have had.
CMW: It sounds like he took a lot from her — a lot of, if not inspiration for what he did, responsibility for her. Perhaps that drove him on to the kind of success he sought. One of the things I read about Houdini, and you said earlier, was that he was an incredible showman and if not talented, that he knew how to publicize himself. Was that something you were working with or thinking about as you were writing this book?
SP: Only to the extent that it seemed to be feeding his biography. He was absolutely a man of the modern age. We tend to think of him as a quaint historical figure, “quaint old Harry,” but that’s not how he was at the time at all. He was at the forefront of the dawn of mass media, mass communication, the beginning of the twentieth century and the extraordinary upheavals in lifestyle that were happening at the time. He was right there at the front of it. He wanted to be a part of it.
When it came to things like motion pictures — movies — Houdini bought his own motion picture company and started making movies of himself. Unfortunately, they’re not very good films, but they’re very interesting. In the movies, he performed all of the escapes. Of course, because there are such things as special effects they’re not nearly as impressive, but they’re the actual, real escapes.
He was the first man to fly an airplane on the continent of Australia. He bought an airplane and was racing, everyone was racing to be the first person on each continent to fly, and he managed to beat out the other person who was racing with him in Australia.
SP: He manipulated the newspapers of the day. He had his photograph put on the front page before he’d perform in any given city, every time he’d go to a new city on his tours. So he was very much about using the new media of the day to publicize and promote his work. In some ways, being a poet, you feel like you’re “He manipulated the newspapers of the day. He had his photograph put on the front page before he’d perform in any given city…. So he was very much about using the new media of the day to publicize and promote his work.”a figure of a time gone by, at least for the kind of poetry I write, so I’m not sure I was thinking about it outside of the book itself.
CMW: To return to the mother for a minute, maybe we could go to page eighty-nine, the poem that begins, “Then late you longed to praise,” which does bring her back, in a way.
SP: Poem twenty-eight. This opens the fourth section of the book, book four. There are five parts of the book. This section here is written in the second person so it’s, in essence, almost as if Houdini’s speaking to himself, as if Ehrich’s addressing himself — the “you” is supposed to be Ehrich. The fourth section is all about the death of the mother, Cecelia’s death, which sends him off onto this new life where he starts exploring more than just being a famous magician and an escape artist. At this point she’s died and he’s struggling with it.
CMW: There’s a feature of this book that I noticed again and again: attention to the body and the details of the body. In the third line there’s the phrase “your naked wrists.” In the poem that we read earlier, in which Houdini the child has submerged himself in the bathtub, you have a very strong image of this child and the feet against the tub. I wondered, why the body in this book, and throughout these poems?
SP: So much of what Houdini was was anchored in the body, anchored in the flesh, anchored in the struggle to escape from or to remain in the flesh. His entire life of escapes was a physical trial. He also had a curious vanity about his extraordinary physique. He was very, very fit. He was a small man, but a very muscular, physically determined man. He would have press photos, publicity photos, taken of him in which he was stripped “So much of what Houdini was was anchored in the body, anchored in the flesh, anchored in the struggle to escape from or to remain in the flesh. His entire life of escapes was a physical trial.”virtually naked, standing in various poses for the camera. In some ways they prefigure later sadomasochistic photos, S&M photos. There’s a fascinating, just a one sentence reference to him as a cult figure in that sense, as a S&M cult figure, which I thought was really bizarre because there’s only one mysterious sentence in one biography, then no one else seemed to acknowledge or comment on it, but when you see these photos that’s exactly what they are, they’re a celebration of the flesh in a very sexual way that utilized restraints, chains, bonds, you name it. Often he’s buckled down in what must be a particularly painful pose with, of course, his muscles rippling and bulging. So Houdini the man was very much Houdini the body, in so many ways.
SP: But what’s interesting is that, with the death of his mother, an extraordinary transference happens in which he moves from being obsessed with the body to being obsessed with the spirit, to what happens after death: How do you return? Is there life after death? If there is, what goes on there? That was his ultimate goal. When he died he told Bess — they had a secret code — he told Bess to hold a séance for him every year and if he could possibly escape from death and come back to this world, he would. Of course, what greater figure to escape the ultimate bonds than Houdini himself? So for him, ultimately, escape became the one common factor through his entire life, the idea of escape, but it started to shift with him as he himself started to shift, it grew with him as he grew, it aged with him as he aged, until ultimately it really was his life, it was what he was, not just in the body but also in the mind, and everything beyond that.
CMW: I wonder about that idea of escape. He didn’t apply it to his mother except, perhaps, to escape the grief of her death. But as far as escaping from his family goes, that doesn’t seem to be what he desires to do. I wanted to talk a little bit about Bess too because it doesn’t seem he’s interested in escaping the bonds, if you will, of marriage. He does seem very loyal to these two women in his life, and to the commitment that he’s made to them.
SP: Right. Now this, of course, is the Houdini in my book, in no sense the historical Houdini. Well, in some sense, I suppose, it is the historical Houdini, but we can’t really speak about Ehrich Weiss the man who lived and died. As far as what exists within the literary context, within the book itself, his mother and Bess tend to be the touchstones for his life, the things he ties himself to.
CMW: There was a poem that you mentioned in which Bess figures as a central character. Is that on page thirty-six, the poem that begins, “The stories keys could tell”?
SP: She’s the central core of that poem, but there’s a long poem, on page twenty-one, that’s all about Bess in various different ways. This is from poem six, it’s the third section.
CMW: Bess was with him from the beginning of his rise to become Houdini, the Houdini that we know. Bess appears in many of these poems, if not as a central figure, as an aside or as a gesture. Did you feel like this was important for your treatment of Houdini, to keep her present as you explored his life?
SP: Originally Bess played a much larger role in the book. When the book was finished it was a fair bit longer than what was eventually published. I started trimming it back. My original intention was to have Bess be the second character in the book, or at least carry an equal amount of weight as the mother, Cecelia, carries. Whereas Cecelia dies and shifts his life, Bess stays with him. That didn’t end up happening, both for reasons of space and pacing as much as anything else, but she certainly seems to follow as a kind of shadow throughout the book.
CMW: When you’re talking about finishing the project and going through the process of editing, how did you create a three-dimensional character in a book-length piece, even though there are individual poems throughout? What poems stayed in and what poems were taken out? How did you make those decisions?
SP: There were a couple of poems that didn’t make it in, that I thought were strong poems, which were opening doors that I left closed. There was an entire sequence of poems about Arthur Conan Doyle and spiritualism that didn’t make it into the book.
Part of the difficulty of writing the book, or trimming the book down, was that Houdini lived such an extraordinarily full life. Really, he lived four lifetimes worth in the span of quite a short life — he died at age fifty-two. So some of the “…struggling with the decisions about what to edit, what story lines to cut out, instantly removed any concerns I had that what I was writing was a true biography.”editing was simply because the book was too long, it wasn’t working as a book at all. Some of it was me trying to figure out what I could pare down and what I could cut out. Recognizing that in itself and struggling with the decisions about what to edit, what story lines to cut out, instantly removed any concerns I had that what I was writing was a true biography. There are entire stories, entire stories and characters, figures from Houdini’s actual biographical life, that are not mentioned at all in this book.
What starts to happen as you start editing those out is that certain things come into relief in a much stronger way. Like the death of his father in his adolescence, that’s something that crops up throughout this book.
SP: It seems to be an early kind of marker for Houdini that helped lead him into the life that he eventually led. I have no idea to what extent that’s historically or biographically true, but the relationship with his father acquired an extraordinary importance in the book, especially as the editing proceeded and other storylines were eliminated entirely, or other characters, such as Bess, started to fall more into the background.
CMW: Maybe we could go then to hear one of these poems about the father, poem thirty-nine, I believe, on page 109.
SP: Thirty-nine. Because Mayer Samuel, Ehrich’s father, died when they were terribly impoverished, he was buried in the cheapest corner in the cheapest cemetery in New York, Jewish cemetery in New York. But once Ehrich made a fortune, one of the first things he spent his money on was a very large, ostentatious Weiss family plot. He had his father’s remains exhumed and moved to this family plot. He wanted to be present at the time his father was dug up, he was very curious about it. He was fascinated by death in a very dark way. This is a poem about his father’s remains being exhumed and Ehrich observing it. Again, it’s from the fourth section so it’s written in the second person.
CMW: Can you talk a little bit about the rhyme scheme in this poem?
SP: Sure. It’s written in three line stanzas. It’s very simply: AAA, BBB, CCC, DDD. It was tough because the lines are reasonably short, which meant that the rhyme was going to become really loud. One of the struggles was to figure out a way to do that without it becoming, to my ear at least, cloying.
One of the solutions I came up with, technically, from a technical standpoint, was to create an inner rhyme scheme within the lines themselves. It tends to be very orally dense, in some ways it’s a kind of tongue-twister to read out loud. I find it fun, but I’m sure other people would find it excruciatingly awful. But that seemed a way to get around it.
CMW: Why do you think this was an important technique to use? Particularly for this moment in which Ehrich resurrects his father and moves him to another place, changing the final scene of his life by moving him to a better plot?
SP: Well, a lot of this stuff, as you must know, comes through the rewriting and the editing. You sit with something long enough and you start having certain ideas about the way the form reflects the content. That in itself was probably the thing I was particularly interested in with this book, finding ways and reasons, even if they’re totally personal justifications, for working with the form, and tying the form to the content in some way or another. If it’s just an abstract form, if it’s “I’m going to write a sonnet” and you just write, whatever, in the shape of a sonnet, that seems to me a lesser use of form. It ought to be something that’s somehow tied integrally to what’s being said.
I think the form starts to shape what’s being said, but the form itself, the vessel itself, the container itself, also carries a complete history behind it that can help inform the meaning of the poem. So one of the things I was trying to work with as I was moving through the book was, I was trying to ask myself, “Why?” Why would I write this as a sonnet? Why would I write this as a pantoum? Why?
SP: If I couldn’t answer that then I knew I had to keep struggling with it. It doesn’t mean I would answer all of those questions before I ever wrote the poem. Some of the answers would come as I was writing the poem. Some of them would come later, then I would work my way back into the poem and try to shape it using what seemed a more effective use of technique.
Also I think that poems, when you’re finished with them and you send the little guys out into the world, they have a life of their own. Sometimes what’s going on in the poem totally surprises us as a writer. Somebody might see something really interesting going on that you weren’t aware of. It doesn’t even mean it’s not in the poem. It doesn’t mean that it wasn’t written into the poem, it just means that it might have been working on a level that you weren’t consciously struggling with, or wrestling with, or aware of that just seemed right.