“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.”
Interview published: July / August 2009
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.
To read the full interview, go to http://www.openlooppress.org/interviews/steven-price/