An Obituary by Thomas Antonic
Green hair was one of her trademarks since the 1950s. That, and a deep, smoky voice with which she roared her poems into the microphone, accompanied by a jazz combo. Besides her lyrics, the most important prop on stage was a coffee cup which concealed her favourite drink; beer. This was also the case on that evening in the Viennese jazz club, Miles Smiles, when I first met the then 84-year-old ruth weiss. Later she told me over countless cigarettes about her wild life. Born in 1928, she fled Vienna with her Jewish parents as a ten-year-old girl which, as she put it, “had never left her heart”. One of the subsequent manifestations of this trauma was the consistent use of all lower case letters in her name as a symbolic gesture against (any) law and order, especially when it came to her native language.
Having narrowly escaped the Holocaust, ruth grew up in New York’s neighbourhood of Harlem and thus became familiar with jazz at an early age. In 1949 she was the first to perform her poems alongside jamming musicians in Chicago’s “Art Circle”, developing “Jazz & Poetry” as a form of performance in which improvisation and spontaneous interaction unfold trans-medially. Jack Hirschman, a long-time companion and San Francisco Poet Laureate, commented on ruth’s musicality: “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 … Others read to jazz or write from jazz. ruth weiss writes jazz in words”. The fact that she did not learn the language in which she wrote poetry until the age of ten also enabled her to take a keener view of her medium, from which she was able to derive astonishing puns and references that are otherwise not to be found in American poetry.
After three years of hitchhiking across the USA, initially together with her first female lover Jeri, and then after their separation accompanied only by a typewriter, she ended up in San Francisco’s bohemian quarter of North Beach in 1952, some time before the Beat Generation arrived. Her first accommodation was a room at 1010 Montgomery, where she accidentally discovered the sign “room for rent”. ruth frequently reminisced about the outdoor shower on the roof of the building, which she often used after a night of drinking, when in the morning hours the fog from the Pacific Ocean came in and mixed with the steam of the hot water. One of her neighbours happened to be Philip Whalen, participant in the legendary Six Gallery reading in 1955, where Allen Ginsberg read from Howl for the first time. Howl itself originated at 1010 Montgomery; Ginsberg lived there for a time after ruth had moved out.
Together with the then unknown Jack Kerouac, in 1953/54 ruth wrote haiku for nights on end in her room at the Wentley Hotel. Early in the morning Neal Cassady would sometimes pick them up in one of his dubious “borrowed cars” to watch the sunrise together on one of San Francisco’s hills. ruth waited tables at The Cellar jazz club, where she also introduced Jazz & Poetry in San Francisco and performed once a week. She published her poetry in Bob Kaufman’s BEATITUDE, Wallace Berman’s Semina and other litmags, published her first four volumes of poetry between 1958 and 1960, and in 1961 produced The Brink, now a cult underground film, which was restored by the Pacific Film Archive in 2019. In 1960 she wrote the screenplay for another legendary film, Ron Rice’s The Flower Thief.
ruth was right in the middle of it all. Unlike her male colleagues, however, hardly anyone took any notice of her work. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who in the meantime had landed a bestseller for his City Lights press with Ginsberg’s Howl, rejected her first manuscript on the grounds that he would not publish women. Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth appropriated the idea of Jazz & Poetry from ruth, made the genre world-famous with their records and were regarded as its innovators for decades. The script for The Flower Thief was dropped in favour of a freely improvised collage.
Undeterred by this ruth continued to write, and published over twenty books including her main work Desert Journal (1977), which describes a journey into the inner desert in 40 poems, and Single Out (1978), in which she deals with her escape story. Kerouac said she wrote much better haiku than he did. One example:
layer by layer
she peels the onion she is
and laughs with her tears
But ruth was also a master of the long poem, as her autobiographical collage “i always thought you black” (2010) impressively proves, which revolves around “black people – dancers, painters, poets & musicians who have appeared throughout my life, marking deep impressions”. About Bob Kaufman, for example, she writes:
BOMKAUF YOU DID IT AGAIN
hugged me so tight
i woke from the dream
your fingermarks still on my back
your face seconds from mine
your silence deep
your eyes probed through the back of my skull
the message loud & clear
“keep on doing what you’re doing
keep on writing what you’re writing
your words are clean
your words mean what they say
you’re a mean lady!”
She travelled extensively with her first husband, the artist and Clyfford Still student Mel Weitsman, who later became a Zen Buddhist and abbot of the Berkeley Zen Center, and spent time in Mexico with Philip Lamantia and Anne McKeever. She appeared as an actress with San Francisco’s drag group The Cockettes in Steven Arnold’s films, later staged variety evenings with drag queen Mona Mandrake (a.k.a. Michael Shain), wore men’s clothing and her head occasionally shaved bald, and was, herself bisexual, in a relationship with gay artist Paul Blake for over forty years. ruth fought “against the sexism and phobias of US popular culture” for decades, as one of her saxophonists, Rent Romus, summarized it. Yet she was never exclusive. When asked in the 1970s to organize a reading series for women, she agreed only on the condition that men would also be allowed to perform, because among them there would be just as many who were not known and deserved a forum for their work to be heard as well.
What little money she managed to earn came from jobs as a waitress, nude model, postal clerk and gas station attendant. Until the 1990s, a hot dog and a chocolate bar were often the only meal for a day – and beer, which she was usually given in bars. Only towards the end of the millennium – ruth had meanwhile moved to a small village on the coast of Northern California with Paul – did the poet gradually gain international recognition. She often referred to the publication of Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation as a turning point in her career. In 1998 she returned to Vienna for the first time, and began teaching at the Vienna Poetry School upon the invitation of its director, Christian Ide Hintze, and taught alongside such luminaries as Nick Cave. This was followed by tours through Europe, numerous translations and finally the award of the Medal of Honour of the City of Vienna in 2006. Her works have been exhibited at the San Francisco MOMA, the Whitney Museum in New York, and the Centre Pompidou, among others. For the 40th anniversary of the “Summer of Love” she performed at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park in front of an audience of tens of thousands, on the line-up between Canned Heat and Country Joe McDonald.
In 2014 I visited ruth for the first time in her secluded house under the huge, old redwood trees that she loved more than anything else. She wrote until the end on her old typewriter, having neither a computer nor internet access. ruth only used her TV set to watch movies on DVDs and had a choice collection of VHS tapes, including Film Noir classics, old Westerns, Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude, Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas, but also Richard Linklater’s romance Before Sunrise, which is set in Vienna. Her preferred means of communication was the landline telephone. She remained politically interested, as one of her last poems, “re: election: fact or fiction”, shows:
his platform rotting wood
his band plays on
while the timbers crash
Most of the poems of her last years are magic spells, which brought her closer to the roots of poetry and turned her into something of a word shaman.
In 2015 I was one of about 25 guests she spontaneously invited to her room after a performance at the Intercontinental Hotel San Francisco, where countless corks were popping, joints were smoked and her musicians started a jam session. At one o’clock in the morning, security threw out all the guests of the 87-year-old lady, who had once been described by San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen as the “Goddess of the Beat Generation” – a title she had always been sceptical about and largely rejected.
Between 2017 and 2019 I visited ruth frequently to work on a biography and a documentary film about her. Over countless hours she willingly and open-heartedly told me her life story, let me work in her extensive archive, connected me with many of her colleagues and friends, let me share her private life and live under her roof, and loved to pose in front of the camera. We spent whole nights together in San Francisco, either in Specs’ bar or in Tate Swindell’s apartment, where she usually stayed when she was busy in the city. In his kitchen we listened to ruth’s stories, accompanied by jazz from the radio, sometimes at small parties, sometimes just the three of us. She was always among the last to go to bed. Her favourite time of day was between midnight and five in the morning. That was also usually the time she wrote and called her friends in Europe.
At the age of 90 she was still on stage, for example at the “ruthFest” organized by the Beat Museum on the occasion of her birthday. Even after several strokes in January 2019 she recovered quickly and only three months later she was back to perform her Jazz & Poetry again. If anyone can be described as a passionate artist who went her way resolutely and lived her life to the fullest, then it is ruth. And she knew how to encourage people to trust their own intuition – whether they were younger colleagues or school children for whom she held workshops in California and Austria. Gaining more fame in her later years she sometimes received phone calls from young fans, among them high school kids, who asked her for advice. “And the main thing I always tell them,” she said, “and I always repeat this, is: timing is everything. And to always do what you really feel. Don’t follow anybody else’s advice how you are going to live your life. And I said I’ve done it and I’ve paid some dues. It’s not easy, but I am happy with what I am doing. I don’t feel like my life has been wasted.”
The last time I spoke to ruth was in mid-July. She sounded motivated and asked me to help her with the text selection for her new book with the wonderful and prescient title Death Becomes Light Is the Bird of Our Love in Elias Schneitter’s Editon BAES. It was probably another stroke that snatched her away from us shortly after her 92nd birthday before the book was published. After the early death of her first translator into German and co-founder of the Vienna Poetry School, Christian Loidl, she wrote in 2002: “you are now where all is possible.” ruth has shown us all that even in our lifetime (almost) everything is possible if we believe in ourselves and refuse to be diverted.
An edited volume on ruth weiss by Estíbaliz Encarnacion-Pinedo and Thomas Antonic is currently in progress and will be published soon. The book will include academic essays on the poet’s work (e.g. by Frida Forsgren, Benjamin Heal, Polina Mackay, Lars Movin, Peggy Pacini, Stefanie Pointl, Steve Seid, Chad Weidner and the editors) as well as poems for ruth weiss and other non-academic pieces by her companions, including Neeli Cherkovski, Janet DeBar, Agneta Falk, S. A. Griffin, Jack Hirschman, Mary Norbert Körte, Tate Swindell, Anne Waldman and A.D. Winans.
ruth weiss’ last volume of poetry Death Becomes Light Is the Bird of Our Love as well as the biography and the documentary ruth weiss – One More Step West Is the Sea by Thomas Antonic are expected in 2021.