ruth weiss in conversation with Thomas Antonic

A conversation with ruth weiss,
recorded and transcribed by Thomas Antonic.

September 19th, 2012, Amerlinghaus, Vienna

ruth weiss (rw)
Thomas Antonic (TA)
Christa Stippinger [publisher, Edition Exil, Vienna] (CS)
Hal Davis [percussionist, performing with ruth weiss] (HD)

Photo by © Jacqueline Godany

Additional details and statements by ruth weiss were included from a second conversation with the poet that took place on October 23th, 2013, at Amerlinghaus, Vienna.

It was attempted to keep the oral character of the conversation intact. Therefore deviance of regular syntax and grammar was largely left unedited. During the conversation ruth weiss sometimes switched from English to German. The German sections were translated by Thomas Antonic and are given in square brackets.

rw: There was a book I had many years ago called New Young German Poets [ed. by Jerome Rothenberg, City Lights 1959]. And one of them was the one who wrote The Tin Drum, Günter Grass. Now was he influenced by the Beats?

TA: I would say just to some extent.

rw: His work was so surreal. And The Tin Drum

TA: Well, Grass and Walter Höllerer, a German writer and critic, went to Paris in 1957 just to meet Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso at the Beat Hotel. So he must have been at least some sort of admirer. A couple of years later Höllerer and Corso edited an anthology with translations of Beat poets, and published it in Germany. It was entitled Junge amerikanische Lyrik [Young American Poetry, 1961].

rw: Aha. I never met him. And my own experiences were that I was writing … I mean I write since I was five. I wrote a lot of work. But I was not recognized too much. But all of a sudden, the last few years … [whistles] it’s incredible. And it’s the right time. So I was not that well known. I made a film in 1961 [The Brink], the only one I directed actually. I’ve been in many movies, but that’s the only one I directed and it’s one of my poems; it was very little paid attention to, but all of a sudden it’s now … it was in Venice, at the Whitney Museum in New York, last week it was at the Hudson Art Fair, somebody showed it in Ghent … all of a sudden. So I was not recognized in those days, but actually I came to San Francisco before that whole Beat thing happened, or what they call it … it was in full bloom I would say about 1955, but I was already in San Francisco in 52 living in North Beach. I was already living there when the other Beats arrived. It was the Bohemian part of the city and there were some of the older poets …

TA: You mean people like Kenneth Rexroth or …

rw: No, not quite yet. But the thing is I considered most of the poetry that I heard then rather conservative. And I love breaking language up. I mean it was nothing I just made up. I believe language should hit directly to the heart. And I have several of my own rules, I tried not to have words with too many syllables. And I didn’t realize it was the Japanese way to write poems, but I found out. It’s all about just to give one line and this creates the whole situation. You don’t go describing like Proust who goes on and on. I read some of Proust, and there were just too many details repeated and repeated. My proof that it’s worked what I was doing is that I have worked with musicians who don’t know English, and they get what I’m doing with the way I pronounce and one word would create a picture. You know, it’s part of my way of working. And I didn’t consider myself as a Beat or even a Jazz poet. I was a poet, and I work with language. And I love language.

TA: So you did not or you still do not consider yourself a Beat poet?

rw: That’s what they call me. And I say why not? Because it puts me into a framework that has reference with the media. And so they can put my picture out there because I belong to this so called group. Then later on, when I met some of the other poets, I saw that they were playing with language too. But I was doing stream of consciousness before I ever heard the word, because it naturally comes out. That’s the way I think. I didn’t go there, it just happened around me. So I know my biography is unusual, because Vienna was my hometown, even though I wasn’t born here …

TA: Yes, that’s what I also find very interesting.

rw: It is strange how these things happen.

TA: So you were born in Berlin, but your parents were both Austrians?

rw: No. Yes. My father was a journalist. And he worked for ten years in Berlin, at the Wolffs Telegraphisches Bureau which was a news service, you know, they would sell the news to newspapers. So it happened that I was born while they were living there. But he was Austrian. He was born in Vienna, but his mother is from Hungary. It wasn’t Budapest, it was a smaller town. But she was Hungarian. Of course there was the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. But the strange thing about my grandmother, my father’s mother, is that after we left, left her behind, the Nazis took over her pension, but they let her stay there. And I think Hungary was not yet under Hitler, so she was a Hungarian citizen. They took her place away but they let her stay in one of the little rooms. And I know that’s where she died eventually. So she actually did not die in a concentration camp. I know she died there because her family was gone, so she was alone, I think her husband had died, and my father was the only child. So I am the last of my line. I have no brothers or sisters, I have no children, and here I am. My mother was originally Yugoslav. She was born in a town in Croatia called Daruvar, which has hot springs. It is not far from Zagreb. But of course she was Austrian after she married my father. Her whole family is from Croatia and they were all vernichtet [annihilated] in Auschwitz, because they would not believe my father when he said: “You’ve got to get out!” And they said: “Oh, it can’t happen here.” And what’s funny is that my uncle, my mother’s brother, he might have been able to get to Israel. But this I know: In Paris there is a club called Moulin Rouge. And he had the Moulin Rouge in Vienna although he lived in Croatia. And I remember as a little girl going there, and there were velvet curtains, all these shows. And I have a picture of them in their Rolls-Royce.

TA: Did Jewish religion play a role in your family?

rw: My grandmother on my father’s side was completely Orthodox. But my Yugoslav family was not. In fact we had some intermarriages with Catholics. One of my cousins was here near Karlskirche [St. Charles’s Church] in a convent. My parents let me run all over Vienna if I wanted to at six, seven, they trusted me. One night I found out that my cousin from Yugoslavia was in the convent near Karlskirche. So I just decided, you know I was seven or eight years old, I started walking all the way from the ninth district to the Karlskirche and I saw the convent, knocked on the door. And the nun looked at me: “Who are you? What are you doing here?” – “I want to see my cousin, Daniza.” – “You wanna see Daniza? Alright, come in.” The next thing I knew they called my parents who came to pick me up, but I saw my cousin. And she was Catholic. And on my father’s side there was some Protestant who went through the war. So it was mixed. But my Hungarian grandmother was Orthodox. And my mother was not used to that, having to separate the silverware, for fleischig and milchig [meat and milk products], they couldn’t mix them. My grandmother drove my mother crazy because she followed all those strict rules. But that’s the way it was. But yeah, so my parents were Austrian. And the most influential part of my childhood was Vienna. I mean I dreamed about it, I talked about it, I would make references to it, and it’s probably the reason why I ended up in San Francisco, because it was more like a European city, especially … everything, the roads, cobblestones, the international, very much…

TA: Yeah, I’ve been to San Francisco a couple of times, and every time I go there it’s like getting out of the plane and instantly it feels a little bit like being at home – which I never feel at other places.

rw: YES! That’s how I feel about coming to Vienna! [to Hal Davis] Hal, he was saying that every time he got off the plane in San Francisco it felt a little bit like coming home, because it feels so familiar.

HD: Oh yes.

TA: Yes, it’s very different to other American cities.

rw: Oh! I lived in Chicago a long time which has it’s own history and is interesting. But it was a little too tough for me. And Los Angeles is too airy, you know. I lived there two years.

TA: So in which year did you move from Berlin to Vienna?

rw: Dreiunddreißig [33]. Exactly when Hitler…

TA: …so you were five years old.

rw: Exactly. And my first poem was in German…


TA: So when you moved to the United States you started writing in English?

rw: Ahm … Let’s see. I moved … Meine ersten Gedichte in Deutsch, und dann komme ich nach Amerika. So für eine Zeit lang konnte ich ja nicht Englisch sprechen, ich war ja nur elf. Ich habe nicht so viel geschrieben. Dann habe ich angefangen, wie ich zwölf war habe ich ganz viel geschrieben, und das war alles in Englisch. Und die Sprache gefällt mir so, die englische, fürs Schreiben, mehr als alle anderen, weil [My first poems in German, and then I came to America. For a while I couldn’t speak English, I was just 11. I didn’t write a lot. Then at the age of 12 I started writing a lot, all in English. And I like the English language so much, for writing, more than all the others, because…] it’s a crude language, a new language. It has more exceptions than rules which makes it easy to play. In all other languages there are rules and once in a while an exception. But English is so crude, you know, it’s a wonderful language to play with. I mean, man kann Witze in allen Sprachen machen, aber [one can make puns in any language, but] there’s something about that kind of breaking the rule. Ja, naja … . So I brought my recent books. Let me show you one. Including the one Christa Stippinger recently did [a fool’s journey / die reise des narren, bilingual edition, English/German, Edition Exil, 2012]. But I also have two other new books that came out recently. One was done … well, the owner of the press is in England, but he has his press in Los Angeles [can’t stop the beat, Divine Arts, 2011]. I’ll show it to you. And the other one came out in New Orleans just recently [The Desert Journal, reprint of the 1977 book, Trembling Pillow Press, 2012]. So I have lots of books to show you. What can I …

TA: I bought can’t stop the beat recently.

rw: Oh, good! Where did you find it? That’s wonderful!

TA: Well, the only possibility to get it here in Austria was to buy it online.

rw: Great! I’m very glad. That’s perfect. And the new one … Have you ever heard of my book Desert Journal?

TA: Yes, but I cannot find it anywhere …

rw: It’s out of print.

TA: I know, but I’m trying to find it in used books …

rw: You don’t have to. I got a reprint.

TA: Really? That’s great!

rw: Yes, and it’s a beautiful job they did. [To Hal Davis] It seems that Thomas has been looking for Desert Journal, and he had no idea that it’s reprinted.

HD: Yeah, ruth and I went down to New Orleans. And the printer, the publisher … we went to New Orleans, and she asked if he has an upright bass and a saxophone. And he said: “Oh yeah, we got all that” –  “And a cajón, cajón [a percussion instrument]”… You ever been to Louisiana?

TA: No.

HD: Oh you gotta go. You have to drink a lot of beer and dance a lot, laugh a lot, and you’ll be OK.

rw: Yeah. I need to explain how this happened.

HD: Excuse.

rw: No, no, it’s fine… So, I was in New Orleans in 1950. Many years ago. And I stayed there about a year, and many things happened, including being published for the first time, it was a weekly newspaper owned by Bruce Lippincott, he was also a saxophone player. He and I jammed a lot together. I met other musicians I used to jam with – not in public, in one house. And this “Green Hair” business. A movie had come out called The Boy With Green Hair [Joseph Losey, 1948], and I don’t know if you have heard of the actor Dean Stockwell?

TA: Yeah, I know him from the Wim Wenders movie Paris, Texas, from 1984. And I think he was in Blue Velvet too?

rw: He is still alive. And he was twelve at the time and he played this little boy, he was an orphan, a war orphan. He was living with his grandfather now, after living with different aunts, and one morning he wakes up, his hair is absolutely green. And everybody in town thinks he’s got a disease, and you know, it just goes on and on … there were pictures, but now they appear in a vision. They look very real. And they tell him: You’ll have to bring me in here, because people will ask you why you wear green hair. Because war is not good for children. OK. So, we were drinking in a bourbon house, and somebody said: “Who is going to do it?” – “Do what?” – “Wear the green hair!” I said: “I will.” So for the next eight months that I was there I wore green hair. So last year, it was August, it’s about a year ago, David Brinks called me from New Orleans. OK. It’s a whole story. He got hold of this book, cause he’s a poet himself. And he also has a press. And in it, somewhere in those 200 pages or something there were two lines about my time in New Orleans, mentioning musicians. So he called me up. And we were talking and he realizes … he’s trying to prove that a lot of it started in New Orleans, not in San Francisco. This man is amazing, he’s 45, he has three children, two to nine, he’s a very good father, takes them to school bla, bla, bla, he owns a bar called the Gold Mine Saloon, and once a week has poetry, he has a press called Trembling Pillow Press, he himself publishes in a press called Black Widow, his wife is also a poet. He runs a bar, he does a quarterly magazine called YAWP, and then he publishes a monthly newsletter called Entrepôt. I mean, I don’t know how he does it all, but we were talking about Desert Journal, because he had just finished a book relating to the tarot, and I told him the way I do my Desert Journal. The audience picks numbers from one to forty and I read the poem with the number they picked. OK, then he said: “Oh, I’d like to have a copy.” I say: “Sorry, it’s out of print.” He said: “It’s out of print? OK, then we have to do another copy.” – This was in November. He invited me in April. By the time I got there the book was ready. And he did a beautiful job. It’s the original text, but it’s larger and bolder, it added some blurbs and some statements from me. Yeah, but I have it. I will show it to you. Yeah, [to Hal Davis] he got can’t stop the beat online. Which is great, because actually it was the first time I ever had an easy access … of course, Christa is finally getting her books on the internet, you know … and me, I have no e-mail, no agent …

CS: Which is terrible to work with you …

HD: She’s too busy already.

rw: I type on my old typewriter. I type on my old typewriter.

CS: Yeah, but for publishing it is really a nerve-breaker … if this word exists …

rw: I do my best … well “nerve-breaker” explains it … so, I’ve been coming to Europe, Vienna since 1998. How it happened was I was invited to Prague for the Beat Generation Festival in 98, and I was supposed to represent the women, Ferlinghetti was there, and … anyway, it’s a long story. The point is that somebody gave me the name of the Schule für Dichtung, the Vienna Poetry School, and I called Christian Ide Hintze [1953–2012, the founder and director of the school from 1992 to 2012], and … you know, he had someone meet me at the train, reserved a hotel for me, and I met him in his office, and then he asked me to come back a few months later, in September, to teach. And I said: “I don’t teach, I’m a performer”. And he said: “Oh, you can do it. Just give me a name for a class and we’re doing the details later.” So from the top of my head I said: One’s Own Voice. And that was the name of my class. So Ide invited me in September and through a mutual friend I met Christa, and it went on and on and on. Some are still friends of mine today, and … yeah, so here’s my connection with Vienna, San Francisco and New Orleans.

TA: And 1998 was the only time you taught at the Vienna Poetry School?

rw: The last time I saw Ide was in 2007 when I was walking down Mariahilfer Straße, and he was coming my way, and he said: “ruth, when you come back next time please let me know, because I have something special to do with you.” Well, by the time that I knew that I was coming he was gone.

TA: So between 2007 and 2012 you weren’t here?

rw: That’s right. I had so much to do there.

TA: And before 1998 there was also no connection to Vienna, or did you go to Vienna before?

rw: No, I could not … It was 60 years until I came back.

TA: I see.

rw: And I talked about … oh, I mean it was very deep … even though I was born in Berlin, I always had this deep connection with Vienna. It was very, very poignant, you know. It’s where my daily life from the age of five to ten … it was very deeply rooted here. I mean, I had friends, and we made hikes all over Kahlenberg or whatever all the mountains surrounding Vienna are called … I was very connected. I had a wonderful life here, all my friends, you know … and then the architecture, the cobblestones, the walking up hills and parks, there’s so many parks in Vienna – as there are in San Francisco. I spent almost daily in one of either Liechtensteinpark or in Clam-Gallas [two parks in Vienna, the latter with a small palace in its center], I don’t know if you know that. Aber man konnte nur in den Park gehen. Man durfte nicht wo der Palast … [But you could only go to the park. You weren’t allowed to go into the palace.] So I didn’t even know where the palace was, not until I came back to the Währingerstraße I saw this French …

CS: Embassy. It belonged to the French Embassy, a cultural center …

TA: Yeah, I think so.

rw: Yeah. But I mean … It’s my city, you know, I love it. That I would be able to come here and do my life’s work. If I had a chance to have some money I would have come long before here, without this other deeper connection. And Christa, besides publishing my books, she gets me into workshops, which means meeting the teenagers, she did three of my theater pieces, which she did a wonderful job …

CS: It was such a great project …

rw: She took three different plays of mine and found a theme between them and made it into three acts of one play.

CS: We connected them and it was as if it was written as one play. It fitted together so well. And we did it in die theater [Künstlerhaus, Vienna] in 2006 with Lucy McEvil [Austrian actor].

TA: Yes, there are pictures of it in can’t stop the beat.

rw: Oh yeah, yeah, right. I show you Desert Journal. Here it is, and originally this was a line drawing by the artist Paul Blake, and David, that’s the person who did the edition … the New Orleans color is gold and black, so he did the cover in gold and black. And there is a nice blurb Anne Waldman gave me [on the back cover of the book: ‘Jazz-poet-performer ruth weiss has lived the lore of many of her associates in the Beat literary-arts movements. She’s a tenacious survivor and anomaly.’]. And this [a parallel planet for people and places, stories and poems, Edition BAES, 2012] is the book that came out last week in Hall [small town in Tyrol, Austria]. And have you been … you know about the poetry festival in Hall?

TA: Sprachsalz, yes.

rw: OK. And Elias Schneitter [Austrian poet and organizer of the festival] made this book for me, and he asked me for a manuscript, and I sent it to him, and what he did was use it just the way I sent it, a facsimile from my original manuscript, he did the first part all in English with white paper, and then the second part, the German translation, you see here the paper’s more yellow. And you see the difference between the computer and my 1930 typewriter. But … I have three books coming out at the same time German/English, and it took a lot of work to make sure…

TA: So what do you think about all these translations of your poems, I mean I think it’s very difficult, because you play a lot with words …

rw: I tell you, the newest book … I have a translator, and it’s good, but he made some mistakes of course, and his sister fine-tuned it. He did a wonderful job, but he was a bit upset that somebody else changed something, but we had to. The best translator I ever had is dead. Christian Loidl [Austrian poet and co-founder of the Vienna Poetry School, 1957–2001]. Did Christa show you her books? This is the one that came out first [full circle / Ein Kreis vollendet sich, bilingual English/German, Edition Exil, 2002, 2nd edition 2012]. Then came out this [no dancing aloud, plays and poetry /Lautes Tanzen nicht erlaubt, Stücke und Gedichte, bilingual English/German, Edition Exil, 2006], and the one that just came out [fool’s journey] is this. And you see how we have it like this here [points at the green cover], and they didn’t know that I was doing my hair like this [green color], look at that [lifts the book and holds it close to her hair], look at that [laughs], it just happened! Because we chose this color, three, four years ago, because Christa wanted to do a book of mine three, four years ago, the third one, but I couldn’t get it … Well, what happened is: The first half of the book can’t stop the beat is called “I always thought you black”. How this happened: In 1993 I decided to write some autobiographical stories. Now: So many stories, how do I start? I thought I need a theme, a wander through the decades and then finish with that. So I decided to focus on all the black people I have known, artists and all kinds …

TA: Why did you choose black people as the first theme?

rw: I was thinking about what’s closest to me. And there were so many black people I was connected with, you know, dancers and musicians and poets, and they happened to be black. The first black person that I was close to was in my grammar school here in Vienna. And my other connection is that my parents put me into this children’s home in Harlem. And I was the only white girl in my class, and I couldn’t even speak English. And so I’ve always been at home with their language and their music and most of their jazz musicians. Actually The Cellar, where I started doing my poetry and jazz readings in San Francisco, had mostly white musicians. I mean they also had open nights where people jumped in to play. But yeah, it just seemed to me that I was full of stories and people I wanna talk about, and they form a group in my head. In fact several people have written about me and have connected me with Bob Kaufman. There’s a book out called Blows Like A Horn by Preston Whaley Jr., and he put Bob Kaufman and me together and said that we were the outsiders of the outsiders! Bob Kaufman also was not part of the center. … And so I did 60 pages or 70 of “I always thought you black”, and then I didn’t want to do it anymore at that time. I tried to get it published; nobody was interested. So Christa and I decided to do that as my third book here in Austria. We tried to translate it. It’s impossible. Because there’s a lot of black idiom in it. For example, I started off with “black don’t crack she said & called me girl friend / when i told her i was 64.” And what it means is, the black people, they have smooth skins, and it’s an expression. “black don’t crack”, well, it’s impossible to do this in German. After trying it with two or three translators I said I give up. I guess it will have to go …

TA: Yeah, that was the thing I was wondering about the translations …

rw: Now, I’ve been talking, talking, talking, do you have some …

TA: Well, a basic question would be – because the main focus of my work on Beat literature lies on transnational connections between the Beats and Austrian literature and culture in general – if you consider yourself more American since you’re in the States now for more than seven decades and got there when you were just a kid, and because, for instance, you’re so involved with the whole Beat culture, or would you say you’re Austrian American, like all the people who had to flee from the Nazis, like Luise Rainer, Hedy Lamarr, Billy Wilder, Fritz Lang, Wilhelm Reich … or also people who emigrated after 1945 by choice, like Joe Zawinul, Arnold Schwarzenegger …

rw: I know what you’re saying. Well, this here [Vienna] was of course home. And San Francisco was really …  you know, I said it, San Francisco. And I was there for 30 years, and then I lost my partner, so I moved to the country, not expecting to be living there for 30 years. But if you read full circle / ein kreis vollendet sich I talk about how I ended up in Mendocino, because it tells that. I was living in Mendocino in 1963, stayed there a year, then I came back and forgot about it. But when these things happened I left the city, I moved to another place near the city called Inverness …

TA: Yeah, I know the place.

rw: Oh, you do?

TA: Yeah.

rw: Well, they never had a flood. And then we finished fixing up the place we were living in. And two months later there was the worst flood, I mean, what year was it, 81? Yes, 1981 … so I moved to Mendocino because a friend of mine called me and told me that there is a house for rent. At that time my parents lived in a house in Turlock, that’s near Modesto, California. It used to be a beautiful place, it was called the breadbasket of the world. But then they sprayed and cut out and built these horrible ticky-tack houses, and the air is terrible because they’ve sprayed everything with poison. It’s terrible. So when they died I sold their house. And I found another house in Mendocino, which was for sale. So in one weekend I sold a house and bought a house without seeing any money. And it’s my house now. Thank goodness I have that. I love Mendocino. Have you ever been there?

TA: No.

rw: Oh, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the States. The big redwoods, and right by the ocean, and the weather is very similar to San Francisco. I’ve been there 30 years I didn’t even realize it. I moved in 1982. And I was 30 years in San Francisco, because I arrived there 1952. But I mean I did write in English in all these years, not in German. So actually my first poem I wrote at five, as a child, you know …

TA: Yeah, but that’s a good question if you need to write in German to be considered as an Austrian writer. I mean of course you are an American poet. But maybe you could still be considered as an Austrian poet as well, even if you write in English and even if you live in the States now for so long, because you’re so connected to Vienna, don’t you think so?

rw: Oh, I mean … I will come back to your idea. But let me tell you: I went to other places in Europe, to Stockholm for a festival, I was in Barcelona, I was in Heidelberg, I was in Erfurt, in Germany, where else I’ve been … in lots of places, but I have to always come back to Vienna. I have to be in Vienna. It’s impossible for me not to be here. I’m always staying at the same hotel, the Fürstenhof. It’s quite wonderful. So I’m coming back year after year, and I wouldn’t think of coming to Europe without going to Vienna. And every time I come there’s more and more for me to do. The mayor even gave me a medal. And I laughed and wondered: Do you think he read any of my books? – Which I’m sure he didn’t. But it was nice. And I always remember my mother. She would say to me: “Mach dich nicht wichtig.” [Don’t aggrandize yourself.] You know, people ask me: Do you think you were pushed in the background because you’re a woman? Well, that is partly true.

TA: I read that Lawrence Ferlinghetti never published your poems at City Lights because you are a woman, is that true?

rw: No, what he said to me was: “Your work is not political enough.” And besides, OK, he had said I don’t publish women. Today I know what he said then because we’ve become kind of friends. Probably he doesn’t even remember that he said that back then. But then he did publish Janine Pommy Vega [Poems to Fernando, Pocket Poets Series #22, 1968]. We got connected in Prague in 1998, at that festival I mentioned earlier. And we had this big show, and I’m doing jazz and I’m in the middle of my performance. And I see Ferlinghetti stand up and he shouted: “Hey, just like in the old days!” And now I often read at City Lights. In fact I am reading there with Brenda Knight and Joanna McClure in November. … But anyway, I’m examining from deep inside, well, back then I was running around to be not seen, and partly I wanted to hide. And when I lived in San Francisco my phone number wasn’t even listed. And now: Fine! Someone even stops me on the street and have a talk, you know. But I know that was a part of it. And the other things I found out: I was interviewed by the Holocaust Oral History Project. And I told them how I also shaved my head. I did it for what I thought was a different reason. And when I thought about it I realized that all had to do with the guilt of the survivor. But I didn’t realize that. And, you know, I shaved my head in 1965.

TA: So it was some subconscious thing?

rw: Yeah. It’s funny. But English is the language I am always writing. And I have two citizenships. I mean it’s legal. I have an Austrian passport. They gave it back to me. They offered it, I didn’t ask for it. And I feel very at home with Austrian humor. I don’t speak too much Wiener Deutsch [Viennese German]. I can understand a little bit. Now are you a poet? Or do you …

TA: Well, yes, I’m writing fiction.

rw: Fiction, yeah. But not especially poetry?

TA: Mainly fiction. Well, but I’m also a musician, and …

rw: Aha!

TA: So I’m writing lyrics for songs.

rw: Yes. Aha. Great. Well, I told people that everything I do, and I write plays, and I paint … whatever I do is an extension of my poetry. So I consider myself mainly as a poet. The only time I wrote a novel was when I was 12 years old. But never again. But I have written stories, and plays, but they’re some kind of surreal plays. Symbolic plays I would say. The characters in it are actually symbols of people rather than a play that has a couch and a lamp. But if you feel strong enough about something it will come out. And if for some reason they don’t quite accept it, somebody else, you know … I’ve seen it again and again, I wanted this [the book can’t stop the beat] so much out. I really… I read it, I used it in performances, people loved it, they felt it. And I’ve seen all these other autobiographies by poets, and I said: I know that people will enter it. And then it happened unexpected. I don’t know if I have finished talking about it. So it didn’t get accepted. No, I didn’t tell you this. So all these years go by, and in 2010 I get a phone call from a man called Michael Wiese who is now living in England and left 20 years ago. I met him 40 years ago, because he was working on films. So he called me and said: I have a press now called Divine Arts, and he said: “I have never published poetry, but I really wanna publish your thing, do you have anything autobiographical?” I already had it; I sent it the next day. And he said: “This is exactly what I was looking for.” And this [the picture on the cover of can’t stop the beat] is actually from a film that was never finished, that we worked on in 1973 or 72, it was called Pyramid, I have never seen that photo before. He sent it to me, wondering if I want it as a cover. I asked: “Where did you get this?” And he said: “It’s been in my files. And we did this 40 years ago.” And I said: “It’s perfect, I love it.” And I’m still friends with the person who took that photo. I’ve seen other photos of that, but I’ve never seen that one. And as I said it was the only poetry book so far. He does mostly like two different categories. One is how to make films and how to write them, getting films, advice; the other one is like shamans in South America.

I’m supposed to get my archives together. The University of Berkeley has the biggest collection. They want everything. And I have so much. 60 years! And I’m not quite sure what they want. It’s called the Bancroft Library, and they have a lot of my stuff since 1992. But they also want the old stuff. And the letters that I have … I don’t know. Yeah, it’s a big job. So I bring a few things in every time, like I’ll be bringing all the things from this trip. But I also have a lot of stuff from the 60s and 70s.

TA: Do you read a lot?

rw: No. I mean I am so involved with my own work. I used to read, but I don’t do as much as I used to. I’ve done blurbs for friends of mine who’ve done poetry books, and I enter it, but I am so busy, and I’m 84, and I gotta focus. And I don’t know how much time I have. So far so good. No, I mean, I am busy, I work until four or five in the morning every day, and I’m trying to write on top of that, and I get about six hours sleep, and it took me too much to prepare for this trip, because I wanted to be sure I had my readings, I mean, I wanted to build a framework. Within that I improvise, but I had to have something, and I didn’t want to do repeats, or what would fit best over here.

TA: And I know just a little bit about your connection to Jack Kerouac.

rw: Yeah, you know, the literary contact had to do with the haiku.

TA: Yeah, that’s what I know.

rw: But I was doing stream of consciousness before I met him.

TA: Yeah, and also this jazz and poetry.

rw: Oh yeah. And I was doing that in New Orleans in 1950.

TA: Yeah. But I was wondering if you … because there are always these stories about how you met him and writing haikus together … did you meet him also afterwards? Or was it just a short …

rw: Very short, but intense. And I was never one of his ladies which is good, because he was great. But he did not treat his ladies well. He didn’t do anything bad, he didn’t hit them or anything like that. But he drank all the time, and he was also under his mother’s thumb. So he didn’t treat his wives … in fact he would not admit that Jan was his daughter. And it’s quite obvious if you look … do you know the book Women of the Beat Generation by Brenda Knight?

TA: Yeah.

rw: There’s Jan Kerouac in there, there’s a photo of her. I mean she looks so much like her father. There’s no two ways about it. And she was a brilliant writer in her own way. And I pushed her to get published in this book, to give an interview, and she said: “Oh, I’m too tired.” I said: “Jan, you’ve got to, this is going to be a very important turnaround for the women.” She did it and she became good friends with Brenda, and they have a lot of different points, but she died before the book came out. But it is in there. Yeah, and I did not … I mean, the only time I saw him … I did not see him in the bars in North Beach. And I knew him before On the Road was published. He had just published one book with a completely different style. I mean I never asked him for help to get published. We were in another realm. I drank my beer and he drank his red wine. But he was brilliant and it was fun. No, I only saw him for a short time. Then he went to New York, and things changed. I don’t know. I wasn’t in touch with him after that.

TA: OK. And there was this quite difficult connection you had with Ginsberg that I’ve read about.

rw: It was unbelievable. To this day I have no idea what … because he really hated me. I have no idea. And he made up some ugly … he made a story that I to this day cannot believe, that I was involved in an orgy with him and Peter [Orlovsky]. Well I was never in a place where that could have happened. I mean I only saw him in public, I was never ever … I lived in some of the same places he did before he did. I was at 1010 Montgomery St. in 1952 and he didn’t get in there before 55 or something. It’s just weird. Strange. He pushed me down some stairs, I don’t know if you know that story.

TA: Yeah, I read about it.

rw: Yeah, oh, yeah, but I have no idea. And some people thought it was because I was a woman. It’s not true, he and Anne Waldman were very good friends, and he had women-friends. It was something I don’t know. It was right from the beginning. We were not friends. Never. But the last time I saw Ginsberg was in 1996 at the Whitney Museum. Because there was a Beat Generation exhibit and he kept me from being able to read there. But my film The Brink was shown because I was invited by the curator.

TA: And you never met Burroughs?

rw: No, I never met him. No. I remember reading Naked Lunch when I lived in Mendocino in 1963.

TA: What do you think about his writings?

rw: Oh I thought that it is fantastic! I mean it was horrible, vomitable, but great writing. I also loved Bukowski. I didn’t even know who he was. I was living in Mendocino one summer, and they had a mobile library, and it was 63, yeah, 1963, and Naked Lunch had just come out, and I said to the librarian – he came on a mobile: “Is there any way, do you possibly have Naked Lunch?” And he said: “Yes.” And I read that all summer I was there. But I myself was never even attracted to heavy drugs, that’s probably why I’m still alive today, but I had a lot of friends who were into heavy drugs, so I understood where he was coming from, and mixed with his brilliance. And then he was involved with a performance artist, what was her name … from the 60s … I knew her. She made a wonderful film called something “USA” and he was in it [presumably Laurie Anderson – Home of the Brave 1986]. And Burroughs was a good friend of this woman. I’m sure she’s still alive. It wasn’t Patti Smith. I can’t remember. But I was never part of the inner circle. I was a humming bird. Because I went to the Rexroth-thing, and I knew these people and that people. But I was never part of an inner circle. I didn’t want to be. This is not my style. And I’ve never gone to university, and that just happened because … my parents and I were refugees who had come to America bla, bla, bla. And my father applied to be at the OSS in 1944, you know, which now is the CIA, which is horrible. But he knows of course German and they will fly him in so he could infiltrate that. Well, they had to check him out. By the time they checked him out the war was over. So they put him, because he was also a CPA [presumably Certified Public Accountant]… that’s what he had to do in America. So they sent him over with the American army, and he was quartermaster at a civilian station in Frankfurt. And I was still going to high school. And a year later, which was 1946, I graduated from high school in Chicago, and then the government sent my mother and me on a troop ship over to Frankfurt. And I didn’t want to go, I wanted to go to university. Anyway, I went over and they put me in a school … commercial … the last thing I … in Neuchatel in Switzerland. And the reason they did that was because my father said they spoke the best French in Neuchatel. Well, I learned how to drink. I had friends with motorcycles; I just rode on the back. In fact I wanted to get a motorcycle, because you would get a BMW for a hundred dollars. But my mother talked to a doctor who said I will never be able to have children if I ride a motorcycle. Of course I wouldn’t do it today. But I had friends who had motorcycles, and they put me on the back and I could see the country. I bicycled from Neuchatel to Bern to Interlaken to Luzern, that’s a beautiful town: On my little bicycle, alone. And I hitchhiked. That’s actually where I learned hitchhiking. This was from 1946 to 1948.

TA: So you’ve been there two years, in Switzerland.

rw: Two years we were in Europe. I spent my vacations with my parents in Frankfurt, and then we went to Garmisch, you know, for Christmas … Well, there’s more, but anyway, it tells you something. But because of this I never went to university, although I spoke all these languages, and … I mean I knew how to read since I was four years old, and you know, I read Rilke, Goethe … But I wasn’t a scholar, so I was outside academia. And now of course the Bancroft collected me and I hear that my books are all over in libraries, universities and so on … A new person who is interested in my work asked me, it is Frederic Baker who did a documentary about me, a wonderful documentary, here in Vienna, and he asked … His mother is from Vienna and his father is from London, and they’re together, but he’s back and forth between London and Vienna. He couldn’t be here, but he asked me if I was interested in doing a thing at Cambridge. That’s the one I could be interested in. So that might happen. I’ve never been in England, but I have been at universities. No, it’s funny, you know, because I myself never went. I mean just the way it happened. I graduated high school, I was in the upper two percent, I mean I took four years of Latin, I took four years of math, and so on and so forth, and always got A’s, but I never went to university. It wasn’t supposed to happen, because I wouldn’t have been on the road. And I was. I hitchhiked a lot and alone, and I never had any problems. I wouldn’t do it today, but I hitchhiked from Chicago to New York, from New York to New Orleans, back to Chicago, and then I came to San Francisco in 1952, and I knew this is my city, like we talked at the very beginning. And it is, like you said, you feel like home there. And of course I’m at home here. And I’ve always considered Wien … Vienna’s never left my heart, I can’t help it. Yeah.


Recent publications by ruth weiss:

* Can’t Stop The Beat. The Life and Words of a Beat Poet. Introduction by Horst Spandler. Studio City (Los Angeles): Divine Arts, 2011.

* Desert Journal. With drawings by Paul Blake. New Orleans: Trembling Pillow Press, 2012. [reprint of the first edition from 1977, published by Good Gay Poets, Boston]

* the snake sez yesssss. [die schlange sagt jetzzzzzt.] poetry / gedichte. Bilingual English / German edition. German transl. by Brigitte Jaufenthaler. Vienna: Edition Exil, 2013.

*  a fool’s journey. [die reise des narren.] poems & stories. Bilingual English / German edition. German transl. by Peter Ahorner & Eva Auterieth. Vienna: Edition Exil, 2012.

* A parallel planet of people and places. stories and poems. Bilingual English / German edition. German transl. by Jürgen Schneider. Zirl: Edition BAES, 2012.

* Einen Schritt weiter im Westen ist die See. Bilingual English / German edition. German transl. and afterword by Horst Spandler. Wenzendorf: Stadtlichter Presse, 2012.

* no dancing aloud. [lautes tanzen nicht erlaubt.] plays and poetry. Bilingual English / German edition. German transl. by Horst Spandler. Vienna: Edition Exil, 2006.

* White is all colors : Weiß ist alle Farben. Bilingual English / German edition. German transl. by Horst Spandler. Ottensheim: Edition Thanhäuser, 2004.

* full circle. [ein kreis vollendet sich.] Bilingual English / German edition. German transl. by Christian Loidl. Vienna: Edition Exil, 2002. [2nd edition 2012]

* make waves. Jazz & Poetry. Audio CD, recorded 2013 at Temple Studio, Albion, California. Vienna: Edition Exil, 2013.

NOTE: All books by ruth weiss published by the Austrian press Edition Exil are bilingual with the original english text and a german translation. They can be ordered here. The book a parallel planet of people and places. stories and poems (also English / German) which is limited to 200 copies and was decorated with one out of 15 “Austria’s most beautiful books” award 2012 can be ordered here.

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