Festival July 24.
July 22, 2009
by Brenda Knight
I call ruth weiss "The Survivor," and her tale is amazing. She
returns to San Francisco to read with a jazz duo in the International
Poetry Festival at Bird & Beckett Books on Chenery Street in San
Francisco's Glen Park neighborhood. I interviewed ruth (yes, all
small case. Think e.e. cummings with bongos) and share her story here:
Austria, 1938. Amid political strife and religious genocide, some
Jewish families managed to escape the horror of the Nazi regime. One
was a ten-year-old ruth weiss, born in Berlin in 1928, who in 1933
escaped with her parents to Vienna, where she began her schooling and
wrote her first poem at the age of five. In 1939, on the last train
allowed to cross the Austrian border, they fled to Holland to board
ship for the United States. Though her immediate family survived,
most of ruth's relatives perished in the Nazi concentration camps.
The family's first years in New York were far from their
comfortable life in Berlin. ruth's parents, struggling with a new
language and long hours with low wages, placed her in a children's
home to prevent her from wandering the city streets alone. Even
though ruth was eleven at the time, she was so small that she passed
for eight, the maximum age for the housing facility. Her parents
visited on weekends.
Eventually ruth's family settled in Chicago, where she
graduated eighth grade from a Catholic boarding school. During high
school, ruth felt alienated from her classmates; she kept to herself
and studied hard, graduating in the top 1 percent of her class with
high grades in every subject – including all A's in Latin, solid
geometry, and English. In 1946, she and her family left their
upper-middle-class Jewish neighborhood to return to Germany, where
her parents worked as American citizens with the Army of Occupation.
She then spent two years in Switzerland at the College of Neuchatel,
hitchhiking and bicycling through the countryside, learning French,
learning to drink, and, as she recalls, "learning little else." ruth
wrote several short stories during this period and kept a journal,
which she later destroyed. This was to be the only time she ever
destroyed her writing.
ruth returned to Chicago with her parents in 1948. This
time, she moved into the Art Circle, a rooming house for artists on
the Near North Side, where she gave her first reading to jazz in
1949. Shortly thereafter, ruth began her Bohemian wandering, which
led to New York's Greenwich Village and the French Quarter in New
Orleans. In 1952, she hitchhiked again, this time from Chicago to San
Francisco's North Beach, moving into 1010 Montgomery, later occupied
by Allen Ginsberg and his last girlfriend, Sheila. ruth wrote poetry
in the Black Cat, a bar two blocks away, and she entered the
all-night jazz world across town in Fillmore at Bop City and Jackson's Nook.
Haiku has long been a favorite form of ruth's, and there
have been many exhibits of her watercolor haiku. In the early 1950s,
when she was living at the Wentley Hotel, Jack Kerouac would stop by.
"You write better haiku that I do," he'd say. After a night of
writing, talking, and sharing haiku, Neal Cassady would show up,
insisting they join him in a drive to Potrero Hill to see the
sunrise. ruth fondly recalls the wild ride down "that one lane
two-way zigzag street."
Through a piano player she knew from New Orleans, ruth
met many jazz musicians in San Francisco and jammed in their sessions
with her poetry. When three of these musicians, Sonny Nelson, Jack
Minger, and Wil Carlson, opened The Cellar in North Beach in 1956,
ruth joined them onstage, performing her poetry to jazz
accompaniment, creating an innovative style whose impact would
reverberate throughout the San Francisco art scene.
During the time, ruth published in the majority of the
early issues of Beatitude, on of the first magazines to give voice to
the Beat Generation. Wally Berman also included her in the Mexican
issue of Semina, a Beat art-and-poetry magazine.
In 1959, ruth returned from traveling the length of
Mexico with her first husband, having completed her journal COMPASS,
which includes an excerpt of her memorable meeting with two close San
Francisco friends in Mexico City poet and photographer Anne McKeever
and poet Philip Lamantia. After talking all night in a café, they
decided to climb the Pyramid of the Sun in the Mayan ruins outside
Mexico City and catch the sunrise. Neither guides nor other tourists
were there in the predawn chill. The climb to the top of the pyramid
was easy, but ruth, paralyzed by fear of heights, had to be carried
all the way down.
That same year, ruth published a book, GALLERY OF WOMEN,
poem-portraits that included poets Aya (born Idell) Tarlow, Laura
Ulewicz, and Anne McKeever, written out of "respect and admiration
for these women with whom I felt a kind of sisterhood."
ruth's first marriage was to artist Mel Weitsman, who
studied with artist Clyfford Still. They met in 1953, lived together
for a year, split up for a while, and then married in 1957. In 1963,
their lives moved in separate directions and they parted as friends.
Weitsmn went on to become a Zen priest, and ruth kept on with poetry
as the central focus of her life.
ruth expanded her artistry beyond the written form and
worked with San Francisco artist and filmmaker Steven Arnold, playing
major roles in all of his films. Their collaboration received
international attention when Arnold's film Messages Messages
premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 1969. In the early sixties,
ruth, excited by the new wave of films coming out of France, Italy,
Sweden, and Japan, began a series of filmpoems and plays, including
FIGS, NO DANCING ALOUD, and THE 13TH WITCH.
Throughout the decades, to support her poetry career,
ruth worked at part-time jobs that included waitress, chorus girl,
gas station attendant (even though ruth doesn't know how to drive),
postal employee, museum cashier, and accountant. Mostly, she worked
as a model, sitting for artists and students. In the early 1970s, she
tended bar at the Wild Side West, a lesbian bar in San Francisco's
Bernal heights where she did Sunday afternoon poetry readings with
her long-time friend, Madeline Gleason. ruth also ran various poetry
series in San Francisco, including Minnie's Can-Do Club,
Intersection, and poetry theater, Surprise Voyage, at the Old
Spaghetti Factory, connecting with many of the younger poets.
ruth weiss is finally getting the attention she has
longed deserved. In 1996, The Brink, the 1961 film that ruth wrote,
directed and narrated with jazz, was screened at The Whitney Museum
of American Art during their exhibit Beat Culture and the New
America, 1950-1965, by the Bancroft Library a the University of
California Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive, and at the Venice
Biennale Film Festival. The San Francisco Main Public Library held a
three-month exhibition of ruth's and Paul's individual work and
collaborations over the past twenty-five years; her work is also in
over fifty special collections at universities and libraries across
the United States.
And ruth continues to perform. Since their heyday in the
fifties, ruth is one of the few Beat poets to have continued reading
poetry live in North Beach, proving how she has honed her craft to
become one of our finest living poets.
As poet Jack Hirschman said, "No American poet has
remained so faithful to jazz in the construction of poetry as has
ruth weiss. Her poems are scores to be sounded with all her riffy
ellipses and open-formed phrasing swarming the senses. Verbal motion
becoming harmonious with a universe of rhythm is what her work
essentializes. Other read to jazz or write from jazz. ruth weiss
writes jazz in words."
bird & beckett books
653 chenery, sf – 586-3733/birdbeckett.com
friday july 24 '09 8:30pm
"A Fine funkiness: Beat Generation goddess ruth weiss (she launched
the jazz-poetry readings at The Cellar) and trumpeter Cowboy Noyd
will have their first reunion since what John Ross calls 'the bad old days'…"
--February 15, 1993 item in Herb Caen's column in the San Francisco Chronicle