Return of the prodigal poet - ruth weiss in San Francisco Poetry 
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 

             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/
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


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