ruth weiss: beat goddess, true innovator of poetry & jazz

(Photo: ruth weiss, 1959)

Living Beat Generation poet ruth weiss describes being in the basement of her Chicago Art Circle apartment building in 1949 when a friend asked her to come listen to a jam upstairs. She was writing and asked him to leave her alone. He grabbed the poem she was working on from her typewriter, read it, and ran upstairs with it. He told the musicians they had to hear it. She started reading and instead of just listening, the musicians started to play. She says, “it was just one of those things.” She started to hear that music in her head when she wrote. She usually reads with a trio: a stand-up base, a tenor sax, and percussion.

As this Chicago memory reveals, ruth was a very early innovator of poetry & jazz (poetry read to jazz accompaniment but also written in jazz style). She has not been widely credited with such status though, and candidly states that Kerouac and others who read with jazz at the Cellar in North Beach did so a few years after she had been doing readings in this style there. It was those poets who received wide attention as purveyors of the style.

ruth and Kerouac were friends, however. They would stay up late in her apartment and write haiku over a bottle of wine. On occasion, Neal Cassady would come by and the three would joy ride through the windy streets of Potrero Hill, their saving grace the sparse traffic of the early morning hours.

I put on some jazz music to read ruth weiss’ new book of poetry and memories, Can’t Stop the Beat: The Life and Words of a Beat Poet (Divine Arts, 2011). I tried to imagine the jazz phraseology ruth might have had in her head as she wrote her bebop-like stanzas and the elipses-spaced paragraphs full of word beats. I felt like an amateur. I felt like I wanted to study jazz before reading so that I could truly appreciate the sound of her poetry and differentiate it.

But you don’t have to be a jazz aficionado to appreciate ruth’s work. The poems of Can’t Stop the Beat are short and long, written in succinct phrases and fragments, and they make up a greater whole; the first major work is titled “I Thought You Black” and is a collection of memories of and tribute to various Black people that have made an impression on ruth’s life. The second major work, “Compass” is ruth’s unedited original prose poetry piece from her 1958 trip to Mexico. She told me that she carried her typewriter (the one she still uses to write) all through Mexico from the U.S. border down to Guatemala in her 1952 Ford.

You might think that short phrases and fragments would make the poems seem choppy, but if you think of them like jazz beats, they do the work, they set a mood, they provide little gems of moments that don’t need any other frills: “words into smoke. notes into fire.” Or, “white skin. black & blue sounds.” (Piece XV of “I Thought You Black”). Together they form vivid stories and full portraits.

(Photo: Scot Runyon, Steve Arnold Film, LUMINOUS PROCURESS, San Francisco, 1971)

There are also wonderful photos of ruth in the center of the book in modern and intricate costumes and headdresses, make-up like a mime, all part of her theatre performances and persona.

As you may have read last month, I had the good fortune to hear ruth weiss read her poetry at the Focus Gallery in San Francisco. I became fascinated by her story: ruth and her immediate family escaped Nazi Germany for Austria in 1933. In 1939, they escaped impending danger there on the last train allowed to leave Vienna. ruth’s family arrived in New York City and eventually moved to Chicago. In the 1960s she began spelling her name in lowercase in a symbolic protest against “law and order,” since in her birthplace of Germany all nouns are capitalized.

I had another bit of wonderful fortune in that I was able to speak to ruth weiss on the phone on October 17 about her new book, and about her life and work.

First, I asked ruth if she had a goal or vision with Can’t Stop the Beat, and how it came together. She told me that the two different pieces had not previously had a home. A publisher in Vienna wanted to publish “I Thought You Black,” but could not figure out a way to translate Black idiomatic speech. It would end up non-sensical. Only about a four page excerpt of “Compass” had previously been published.

But ruth believes in synchronicity. Timing. She knew that the “right time and place “ would come along and these pieces, pieces that she loved, would have their audience. Michael Wiese called her to tell her that he was looking to publish some autobiographical work of hers, and did she have anything ready? She said she had a manuscript in hand, ready to go, and sent it to him the next day. Wiese loved both pieces and expertly wove them together with introductory notes on ruth’s life, as well as the photos.

(Photo: Grant Avenue Street Fair, North Beach, San Francisco, 1959)

I had read that ruth had said that her other artistic work (plays, films and watercolor haiku) are extensions of her poetry. I asked her to expand on this statement, and on what draws her to poetry. ruth responded that she has always written poetry; she began writing it at the age of five. She considers herself a poet, not a writer. “If you are given a gift,” she said, “you have to follow it, work with it, you can’t reject it.” Her “whole focus” has always been poetry, and she always knew her time would come.

She described her plays and films as being in poetry form. They are not traditional plays with a living room setting and an elaborate plot. The characters are very symbolic. She draws much inspiration from myth and fairy tales.

I asked ruth what it was like to be a female poet in the 1950s; I asked if she felt that she was a part of the artistic circles completely, or if she felt that there was more of a camaraderie between the male artists. She said that she felt that way only among the poets, that she was “left in the background.” She did not feel that way with the musicians.

The poetry circles were quite closed; there was a very close-knit clique and inner circle (including Jack Kerouac, Ferlinghetti, Ginsberg and others). I asked her point blank if she felt that she was left in the background in good part because she was a woman. “Absolutely,” she said, with emphasis. But she added that there were very good male poets as well that were left out of the inner circle of the poets.

In 1959, ruth published her book Gallery of Women (Adler Press, 1959), a book composed in poetry, honoring the female poets whom she most admired. She also wrote short tribute poems to each of the women featured in Women of the Beat Generation, by Brenda Knight, which are featured on the audio version of the book, read by actress Debra Winger.

(Photo: Max Moser at Literatur Haus performance and book party for No Dancing Aloud, Vienna, 2006)

ruth has three new books coming out next year in Germany and Austria, filled with previously unpublished older works, as well as newer pieces. ruth no longer writes in German, her first language; she has an uncanny memory for dates and places and says she can still remember the day she dreamt in English. She loves the English language for its many exceptions to rules that are so steadfast in other languages. She considers it a language ripe for poetry.

When I asked ruth at her reading in San Francisco for a bit of advice for women writers and poets of today, she said: “It’s an old idea, but always be true to yourself. We women have a tendency to be nursemaid to everyone. But you can’t take care of anyone until you take care of yourself.” She signed the copy of Can’t Stop the Beat that I bought and underlined the dedication, which reads, “[T]o all of the travelers who trust the bend in the road.”

About the title of this article: ruth weiss is prone to being called “the goddess of the Beat Generation,” a term coined by Herb Caen, the journalist who first used the expression “beatnik” to describe the followers of Kerouac and others in June 1958, in a column he wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle.

To read a poem about ruth weiss written by Lourdes Acevedo, click here.


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