“ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art” — A Review by Douglas Field

ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art
Edited by: Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo and Thomas Antonic
De Gruyter, 2021

In recent years, scholarship on the Beat Generation has moved beyond a focus on the usual suspects—Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. “Three writers does not a generation make,” as Gregory Corso pointed out. Recent publications, including The Collected Poems of Bob Kaufman (2020) and Harold Norse: Poet Maverick, Gay Laureate (2022) have shed light respectively on Black American and queer Beat writing. The Routledge Handbook of International Beat Literature (2018), edited by the indefatigable scholar A. Robert Lee, has moved on Beat Studies from the exceptionalism that characterised early scholarship. If early Beat scholarship focussed on the Beats as a North American phenomenon, critics are now beginning to view Beat writing as a global phenomenon. The transnational turn in Beat Studies has been matched by overdue studies of female Beat writers, among them Women Generation Writers of the Beat Generation Era (2018) and Diane di Prima: Visionary Poetics and Hidden Religions (2019).

ruth weiss, who was born in Berlin, grew up in Vienna, and who moved at first to Chicago via the Netherlands and Switzerland, is an exemplary and productive subject for the recent turns in Beat scholarship. As she explained in a recent interview, in reference to her use of the lower case, “Every time I sign my name, is a revolutionary act, my way of standing up to the control of the ‘law and order’ Germans in the ‘30s whose demand for control led to WWII and Nazis murdering millions of people, including my family.” Moving to San Francisco in the early 1950s before the East Coast Beat invasion, weiss was one of the first artists to perform her poetry to the accompaniment of jazz. But as the editors caution, weiss, a polymath whose artistic production cuts across poetry, film, and visual art, resisted categorisation. ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art, the editors point out, “does not claim or reassert ruth weiss’s position amongst the writers of the Beat Generation, nor does it argue that weiss should be studied through the always kaleidoscopic but ultimately limiting Beat lens.” This approach is reflected in the range of contributions gathered by the editors, which includes academic essays, reflections, and interviews, a hybrid model that succeeds in teasing out weiss’s wide-ranging outputs from the 1950s to her death in 2020.

Part One, “Beyond Poetry,” explores the artist’s poetics through a range of poems and creative pieces, including contributions from Anne Waldman, Tate Swindell, John Wieners, and the late Jack Hirschman. Part Two, “Poetry, Jazz & Art,” includes eleven academic essays and an interview. In “ruth weiss: Transnationalism and Resistance,” Benjamin J. Heal moves away from “specifically American contexts” by considering weiss through a post-national critical lens. As Heal notes, while weiss pioneered the reading of her poetry to the accompaniment of jazz in the early 1950s, in fact “silence is central to her written work.” weiss’s position as a transnational writer is expanded by Stefanie Pointl in “‘vienna. not quite.’ Place, Movement, and identity in ruth weiss’s poetry.” As Pointl points out, weiss’s poems are neither sentimental about her European upbringing, nor do they exult her adopted homeland of the United States. Rather, “they convey a voice that moves freely within and between all these places and does not quite allow itself to be tied to any of them.” weiss’s poetry, Pointl claims, “rejects the notion of nationality as a defining category in favour of a worldview in which human coexistence is grounded in experiences and interpersonal relationships rather than questions of origin.”

In “‘How real is i?’: Gender and Poetics in ruth weiss,” Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo explores how the poet “complicates and blurs established categorizations through which she documents both the struggle and the balance, and the exclusion and the dissolution of the (de) gendered selves that inhabit her work.” In contrast to the work of Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima, however, weiss rarely used her poetry to highlight gender inequalities directly. As Encarnación-Pinedo explains, “weiss seems particularly aware of the dangers of writing as, for, or even about man or woman as fixed categories.”

Polina Mackay turns to one of weiss’s most accomplished works, Desert Journal (1977). In “ruth weiss and the poetics of the Desert,” Mackay argues that the poem’s Judaic and Christian themes also develop the theme of the desert that is found in poetry from William Wordsworth to Robert Frost. And yet, as Mackay explains, “weiss’s desert is primarily American, dominated by American history, storytelling and landscapes.” Desert Journal is also one of the poems discussed by Chad Weidner in “Reaching Towards the Light: Transitory Spaces and the Negated Material in Selected Texts by ruth weiss.” Weidner points out that the Environmental Humanities has largely overlooked the work of Beat writers, which he addresses through an ecocritical reading of selected poems by weiss, including Blue in Green (1960). A number of the chapters ponder the reasons for weiss’s relative obscurity. In “Traditionally New: The Jazz & Poetry Work of ruth weiss,” Hannes Höfer notes that the poet “was never really interested in promoting herself as a solitary genius.” Rather, it was creative collaboration, illustrated by her pioneering fusion of jazz and poetry that drove poems such as “I Always Thought You Black,” which name-checks the names of artists with whom she worked.

weiss did not perform at the San Francisco Summer of Love gathering of poets and musicians in 1967, but as Peggy Pacini discusses in “‘being tested’: ruth weiss at the Summer of Love 2007,” she performed at the fortieth anniversary event. Pacini’s close reading of weiss’s readings at the anniversary event provides a detailed analysis of her singular performances. Pacini observes how weiss “uses her own musical acuity and sound memory to engage her audience into their own memory and interpretation of the words of the poems in relation to their own experience and/or vision of the late 1960s.”

Caroline Crawford’s “Oral History Interview with ruth weiss,” offers insight into the poet’s aesthetic approach. “[M]y whole philosophy,” weiss explains in a lively and revealing discussion, “is improvisation,” a theme that many of the chapters discuss. In “ruth weiss and Visual Art: The Watercolor Haiku Series A Fool’s Journey and Banzai!,” Frida Forsgreen analyses weiss’s arresting watercolour haikus from the early 1950s, several of which are reproduced in the chapter. As Forgsren notes, weiss’s haikus are “striking examples of multimodal and improvisational art in American artistic counterculture.” weiss’s fascination with visual art is explored by Lars Movin in “‘Go to the roundhouse, he can’t corner you there:’ The Brink (1961), ruth weiss’s Poetic Film.” Situating weiss’s experimental film, which was first screened at the San Francisco International Film Festival in 1961,within the burgeoning underground film scene, Movin analyses the film—“a strong statement on the importance of the enigmatic powers and magic of poetry and spontaneity”—which draws on weiss’s long narrative poem, also titled, “The Brink.” And as Steve Seid explores in “ruth weiss, Luminosity Procured,” the poet starred in a handful of Steven Arnold’s experimental films, including the ambitious Luminous Procurress (1971). Arnold, whose work with weiss underscores the importance of collaboration to the poet, described her as “Part Edith Piaf, part Giuleta Masina, truly one of the most important women on the planet.”

With its range of writing styles and international cast of contributors who hail work across different disciplines, ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art succeeds in bring the complexity and artistry of ruth weiss alive. The book is an invaluable resource on the poet’s life and work, including a detailed and enlightening chapter by Thomas Antonic on “The ruth weiss papers.” ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art brings the poet out of the shadows, as well as providing readers with the context through which to approach this enigmatic poet across continents and genres.

Find the link to buy the book here: https://ebsn.eu/news/new-publications/#Weiss

Douglas Field, May 2022