The Show Must Go On: A Conversation with Charles Rammelkamp about A Magician among the Spirits —curated by Tiffany Troy

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives with his wife, Abby. The two are retired from federal government service. Rammelkamp is the author of several collections of dramatic monologues. A Magician among the Spirits, which borrows its name from magician Harry Houdini’s nonfiction exposé of spiritualism, is the winner of the 2022 Blue Lights poetry prize. The collection takes after the voice of Harry Houdini as he luxuriates in the life that he has invented for himself as the most sought-after escape artist, stunt performer, and conjurer during the turn of the twentieth century.

Tiffany Troy: How does your first poem, “Alternative Facts,” set up the rest of the collection that follows?

 Charles Rammelkamp: Harry Houdini’s was surely the least reliable testimony for an account of his life, and yet his underlying motivations are crystal clear: his family, his success in his profession. The first poem is meant to shine a light on this. If essentially a man of integrity – his crusade against the underlying deceit of Spiritualism is a case in point – he could play fast and loose with the facts if this served his purpose.  On one level, indeed, his life was an invention. Publicity drove him. He luxuriated in his mystique, his legend. Details are negotiable.

TT: Can you describe the process of writing this collection of persona poems? What is the research process like and how is it similar or different from the previous collections of persona poems you’ve written before?

CR: In previous similar projects – Mata Hari: Eye of the Day, Fusen Bakudan, American Zeitgeist –I’ve used a variety of voices to paint the picture, flesh out the drama, some historical and some fictional. Here, in A Magician Among the Spirits, I wrote the poems exclusively in Harry Houdini’s voice. Only after I’d finished the first draft did I realize the final two poems, which take place after Houdini’s death, really needed to be spoken by someone else, namely, his widow Bess. 

These sorts of collections about historical people and periods require research, of course –histories, biographies and memoirs, contemporary accounts if available (so much internet trawling!) – to get an accurate picture of events in their time. Adam Begley’s concise biography of Houdini was my essential source, but I looked at other books, such as Joe Posnanski’s and Phil Coleman’s biographies and John Kasson’s Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man, which is subtitled, The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity. There’s always the temptation to fudge the facts – like Houdini himself! – but mostly it just feels right to present as accurate a picture as possible, no matter your interpretation of the facts.

TT: How did you organize the poems into its three sections?

CR: Houdini was devoted to his family, and especially his mother. On his death bed, his father had made him promise to care for her after he’d died. But it wasn’t simply keeping a promise to his father.  He really was devoted to her. His mother’s death had a profound effect on him, and it seemed to me that that event was a sort of “before and after” in his life. (He was only fifty-two when he died, not a short life but certainly not a long one.) Without question it was after his mother’s death that he turned his attention to “Spiritualism,” which is all about contacting the dead. He knew from his previous magic acts that it was a hoax, but it was only after his mother had died that he took up the cause of exposing mediums.  The two-poem “Coda” takes place after his own death – another “before/after” mark.

TT: How does form inform your collection?

 CR: I’ve always loved the dramatic monologue, the soliloquy, to reveal character, sometimes through irony, sometimes not, and to develop a plot, drive a story. In my previous collection about Rasputin (Catastroika), the “speeches” alternate in chunks from the perspective of Maria Rasputin, the mad monk’s daughter, and Sasha Federmesser, a fictional Jewish character, to tell the story of Russia in the 20th century, but the story does proceed chronologically. Here, the whole story is the life of Harry Houdini, likewise on a timeline, but it’s all in his voice, except for the Coda. In both cases, though, the essential thing is the story being told from a particular point of view. A Magician Among the Spirits is the story of Harry Houdini, the unreliable narrator, but I like to think it’s as if we’re reading his mind, even as he occasionally boasts about his accomplishments and gifts; that’s simply another aspect of who he is. Of course, much as I try to be faithful to the historical figure, ultimately he’s a character I’ve created from an interpretation of sources, and the sincerity I try to portray is also just a fiction.

TT: I am interested in how the persona poems revolve around facts of the famous Harry Houdini but anchors/ centers it around the American dream. How does the poet (you) differentiate yourself from Houdini whose takes you emphasize are not “facts” but “alternative facts,” and whose take on things takes from his time, identity, and status?

CR: I really did hope to present a “sincere” version of Houdini, to have him express his “real” thoughts, but while I’ve presented him this way, inhabiting his head, that’s ultimately not going to be possible, is it? Still, I wanted to present him this way. One of the myths the Houdini story partakes in, you’re right, is the immigrant story of rags to riches, aka, the American Dream. It’s one of the truly inspiring aspects of his narrative, rising from poverty and the sweatshops of New York to the heights of celebrity and wealth.

The corollary is the sudden meteoric fall – in this case his tragic death from a burst appendix. According to the accounts I’ve read, his death might have been avoided had he heeded the medical advice he was given. He passed up several opportunities to be treated, in Montreal and Detroit, which might have resulted in his survival.  “The show must go on” was a reason he kept giving for putting it off, despite a burning fever. This suggests the hubris that’s at the root of so many tragic heroes. In denial, he may really have believed he was a Superman. This could have been a different plot approach, Houdini lured by the myth of his superhumanity, his belief in his “alternative facts”.

TT: How does the speaker differentiate between the conjurers and spiritualists?

CR: “It takes a flimflammer to catch a flimflammer,” Houdini told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times (as quoted in the poem, “Spiritualism”).  An interesting approach here is his attitude toward the Doyles. While Houdini had nothing but contempt for the “mediums” who were just out to make a buck from their gullible victims, he knew that Sir Arthur’s was a sincere belief that he could contact his dead through mediums. As a performer who knew all the tricks to make this illusion seem credible, Houdini felt real compassion for the Doyles’ naïveté and didn’t want to shatter their hopes. They’d lost loved ones during the Great War. It was only when the Doyles hosted their own séance in which Lady Doyle “contacted” Harry’s mother Cecelia that he took offense, and while he respected Doyle for his sincerity and accomplishments – and no doubt felt more than a little intimidated by Sir Arthur’s fame and social status – he felt he needed  to go public and “call a spade a spade,” expose the charlatanry for what it was, even as it ended his friendship with the amiable and otherwise honorable Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. A magician, Houdini knew, was ultimately an entertainer, not a “seer,” the acts of illusion and legerdemain only tools of the trade.

TT: I’m fascinated by the etymology of the names: especially not just how the names come to be in their current iteration but also its maiming and changes through assimilation. How is it some ways a metaphor or the larger theme of the book?

CR: Good point! Name changes signal an escape, in some sense. Just as Robert Zimmerman became Bob Dylan, so Ehrich Weiss became Harry Houdini. It’s a transformation, not unlike going from rags to riches. I wonder how purely “American” this phenomenon is; it feels like it could be universal motivation, but I’m thinking of Frederick Jackson Turner’s theory about the “frontier” defining American history:  always another place to escape to, an opportunity to re-define yourself. Harry certainly re-defined himself in adopting the stage name.  The “Houdini” part was in emulation of his original magician idol, Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin, just as Dylan is said to have taken his name from the Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas.

Of course, Harry’s father, the rabbi, Mayer Samuel Weiss, didn’t have the choice in the name change. The American authorities changed the Hungarian Jewish spelling of “Weisz” to “Weiss”.  In either case it translates to “White,” but the difference in self-determination is a poignant reminder that Harry was more in control of his destiny than his father, and in many ways, Harry’s control of his own destiny is a redemption of his father’s lack of control. Isn’t this the ultimate meaning of the American Dream? Control of one’s destiny?

TT: Do you have any closing thoughts for your readers?

CR: The theme of “escape” is central to understanding Harry Houdini’s life.  First, it’s what distinguished his stage act from all the other magicians and would-be escape artists, the secret of his phenomenal show business success –  handcuffs, straitjackets,  Scotland Yard shackles, the Siberian Transport Cell, his underwater escapes, “the Milk Can Escape,” the “Chinese Water Torture Cell,” suspended upside down from skyscrapers: “breaking free from restraints, eluding disaster, a step ahead from catastrophe.” All of this gave him an aura of the superhuman, straight out of the comics. But more important, as you suggest, it’s a compelling metaphor for that “American Dream” fantasy. Nothing can stop you if you put your will to it. Nothing!