The presentations and conversations on Rukeyser’s Houdini, as well as the enigmatic figure of Harry Houdini himself, were made possible by a grant from the Michigan Humanities and with the generous support of EMU’s Center for Jewish Studies and the English Department. We’d like to thank the speakers Jan Freeman, Stefania Heim, and Matthew Solomon; Karley Misek and Cole Nelson for their assistance with matters both technical and communicative; and Bill Rukeyser for his steadfast support of Rukeyser scholarship. Special thanks to Alexis Braun Marks, Marty Shichtman, and Joe Csicsila for their early, and immediate, interest in exploring Rukeyser’s neglected play on Harry Houdini. Thank you.

Information about the Speakers:

Jan Freeman

“Let me see, let me feel, let me know what is real”: Publishing Houdini, A Musical

In my presentation I will speak about my discovery of Houdini: A Musical, the decision to publish the verse drama through Paris Press, the journey of transforming the manuscript housed at the Library of Congress into a published book, and bringing the text to the attention of readers. I will also address Rukeyser’s themes of freedom and imprisonment, truth and illusion, and the body in Houdini and in her poems that first captivated me as a young lesbian poet.

Jan Freeman is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Blue Structure (Calypso Editions), and she is co-editor of Sisters: An Anthology. Poems from her manuscript in progress, Mobius, are forthcoming or recently appeared in Barrow Street, The Brooklyn Rail, North American Review, Plume, and Poetry. She is a 2020–2022 Associate at the Five College Women’s Studies Research Center and recipient of the Spiral Shell Fellowship at the Virginia Center for Creative Art’s Moulin à Nef in Auvillar, France. Jan founded Paris Press (now housed at Wesleyan University Press) in 1996 to bring back into print Muriel Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry. Paris Press also published Rukeyser’s Houdini: A Musical and The Orgy. Jan teaches at the MASS MoCA Ekphrastic Poetry Retreats and Writing Through Nature and Art Poetry Workshops. She provides editorial services, manuscript development and consultations, and coaching to poets and writers.

Stefania Heim

Myth, Fact, and the ‘Stairway Between’: Muriel Rukeyser’s Houdini

Muriel Rukeyser spent four decades researching, imagining, writing, pitching, and rewriting the text that became Houdini, which was performed as a play only once, in 1973, with Christopher Walken in the title role. This “musical with a ferocious play inside” is a rich site from which to explore Rukeyser’s ongoing interrogation into the “meeting-places” between symbol and fact, myth and the concrete details of existence, as they are put into motion in the “whole lives” of individuals. In this talk, I shall present archival traces of Rukeyser’s process, drawing from her proposals, plans, correspondence, research, and drafts from the 1940s through the mid 1970s. In particular, I shall explore Rukeyser’s incorporation of language from the 1926 Congressional Judiciary Subcommittee hearings on fortune telling—an important and unexplored instance of her investigation into the possibilities of documentary poetics.

Stefania Heim is author of the award-winning poetry collections Hour Book (Ahsahta Press, 2019) and A Table That Goes On for Miles (Switchback Books, 2014) and the NEA-winning translator of Geometry of Shadows: Giorgio de Chirico’s Italian Poems (A Public Space Books, 2019). Her scholarly and lyric essays, including many on Rukeyser, have appeared in venues including Journal of Modern Literature, Textual Practice, Journal of Narrative Theory, Paris Review, Jacket2, the volume 21|19: Contemporary Poets in the 19th Century Archive. She is editor of Rukeyser’s unpublished essay “Darwin and the Writers” (Lost & Found Documents Initiative, 2010), a former editor of Boston Review, and a founding editor of Circumference: Poetry in Translation. As of fall 2022 she will be an Associate Professor of English at Western Washington University.

Matthew Solomon

Matthew Solomon is an associate professor in the Department of Film, Television, and Media, at the University of Michigan. He is the author of Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, winner of the Kraszna-Krausz award for best moving image book, a monograph on Chaplin’s The Gold Rush for the BFI Film Classics series, and Méliès Boots: Footwear and Film Manufacturing in Second Industrial Revolution Paris (in press). He edited Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon and Magnificent Méliès: The Authorized Biography (in press), the latter authored by the late Madeleine Malthête-Méliès and translated by Kel Pero.

Photo by Jennifer Chapman