RUTH WEISS: coming into focus
ruth weiss was in town for the 60th anniversary of City Lights Bookstore. She was also in town when City Lights began in 1953. In honor of her turning 85, there was a gathering at Focus Gallery (run by John Perino). It was late afternoon, which is to say we were late. We missed a crowded reading which included Andrei Codrescu.
Present were Jack Hirschman (who gave her a hand-drawn piece incorporating the letters of her name into a poem), Peter Sherburn-Zimmer (who free-styled), as well as ruth. (“weiss spells her name in lowercase as such as a symbolic protest against ‘law and order,’ since in her birthplace of Germany all nouns are spelled capitalized.”)
The nice part of arriving late to this event, which still had another hour to go before Perino’s wine and hospitality ran out, was that many had left and ruth wasn’t surrounded with people. I walked up to her on the sidewalk. She was smoking a cigarette and talking with someone, and I waited for them to finish. I then introduced myself as someone who used to read poems at Minnie’s Can-Do Club in the early 1970’s. We time-traveled back to those days when she was running the open mic there. I was 20, living in the Haight, and studying with Nanos Valaoritis (the Greek surrealist poet) at SF State. I often went to Minnie’s where the people at the bar were not there for the poetry, and it took some doing getting their sympathy or attention.
After a night of listening to the writers at Minnie’s, I felt like I had been exposed to a variety of mental illnesses. I liked ruth, though, who was supportive of my half-assed poems. When I turned 21, an older woman friend took me to the Condor Club to see Carol Doda. She would end her act by writhing naked on a piano which would rise up to the ceiling where she disappeared. I later wrote a satirical poem, not impressed with blown-up tits and watered-down drinks.
I read the poem one night at Minnie’s, and ruth liked it. She said I should give it to Carol, who was a friend of hers. After a reading in North Beach I walked to the Condor Club with a few friends and presented the poem to the doorman/bouncer, who didn’t seem to be well read. However, he took it to Carol and returned a few minutes later, saying I could have a free show (but not my friends).
After presiding over the readings at Minnie’s, ruth was involved in readings at the Old Spaghetti Factory in North Beach. There was a large room, a kind of theater, connected to the restaurant. I read there one night, along with others, and an older poet came up to me afterwards and said, “You were out-acted, but you weren’t out-written.” I was a little surprised to hear that acting was a part of the process. ruth had always emphasized the performance aspect of her poems, but I wouldn’t say she was a drama queen. Her approach was more calm. She was one of the first ones to read her work with jazz musicians backing her up. She started doing that in 1949 when living in a house with writers and musicians and there was a cross-fertilization of the mediums. I went to one of her readings at the Old Spaghetti Factory where she used a slide show to accompany her poems from Desert Journal. This was in the 1970’s. I remember how it ended – with a slide showing a semi-abstract vulva shape and her intoning: “woman – split.”
Forty years later I was talking with her in the Focus Gallery. She still had short hair, now dyed turquoise (matching her fingernails). Having been an intelligent live wire all her life, she wasn’t about to stop now. She’s a soft-spoken tough old bird, and when I was complimenting her on having made it to 85 I said something about clean living and she refused the concept. “I smoke and drink and do whatever the hell I want!” She had a glass of champagne in her hand and was ready for another cigarette. This is a Jewish woman who was born in Germany in 1928. In 1933, ruth and her family were forced to leave the country because of the Nazis. They went to Austria. A few years later, they had a narrow escape when a woman they didn’t know and a German soldier got them on the last train out of Austria in 1938. They eventually made their way to Chicago.
She said one of the first things Hitler did when he came into power was to ban smoking; he was testing how much he could control people. I had a nice talk with her, pouring John’s red wine as she told people that someone was here from Minnie’s. I asked her about her early days when she started combining jazz and words. She said she liked to have a “stand-up bass, tenor sax, and a rhythm section.” I was reading poems with the same instruments last week at Viracocha (Word Party).
In the 1950’s ruth was in Chicago, followed some musicians to New Orleans, spent some time in Greenwich Village, and ended up in San Francisco. When she was tired of the city she moved to Big Sur. She traveled through Mexico with her husband, climbing one of the pyramids (and then was carried down because of her fear of heights). I’m not sure how she got by in those days, although a woman friend of mine was taking a life-drawing class in the mid-70’s and said ruth was posing. She had a longtime companion named Paul who I met, a mild-mannered fellow who was younger than her. Some beat writers were known for having volatile domestic arrangements, abandoning their wives or girlfriends, but she tended to be in sympathetic relationships.
ruth didn’t publish much back then, but that’s like poets now who focus on spoken word performances and not so much on the printed page, which some look at as a graveyard for words. They found an instantaneous form of publishing by throwing their voice. There is a reference to this in the introduction to can’t stop the beat: THE LIFE AND WORDS OF A BEAT POET (you can read the Litseen review right here):
“In his book, Blows Like a Horn, Preston Whaley indicates the reason for the lack of acceptance of ruth’s early poetry by publishing houses like Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Press: ruth weiss’ avant-garde language, which eliminated conventional structures, was not easily accessible for a wider readership; and, the respective policies of the publishers, who either looked skeptically upon or were strictly opposed to either the publication of non-political writing or that of women in general. But ruth herself also sees the reasons for it in her own biography: as a child she often had to hide, an experience that left its stamp on her life and was counter-productive to her literary success.”
In the mid-70’s I spent a year in Europe with my French girlfriend and was introduced to Gregory Corso in Paris. I was still writing, but drifting away from giving readings. By the time I returned to California I had lost track of ruth — who at some point moved to the woods around Mendocino. I want to say she was hiding in a quiet and remote location, but she has made occasional appearances, performing her work. A few years ago I ran into her at an event for women writers at the Beat Museum.
In the gallery, with paintings by Ferlinghetti, Jack Micheline, and others, my wife Sarah asked her to sign a book she brought for the occasion: Women of the Beat Generation, edited by Brenda Knight (having obtained the signatures of Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, Joanna McClure, Joanne Kyger, and Brenda Knight). ruth wrote “for the women” on the page entitled: “ruth weiss – The Survivor.”
“ERNEST ALEXANDER long & brown listens to my poem. in my black blue-bulb room. pulls me upstairs. sez now read to these folks. they gotta hear this.
my first own home. my first turntable. my first modeling nude. my first poetry aloud. someone blows a horn. someone brushes a drum. i’m reading to jazz man.
don’t think i’ll make it to 30. don’t think. write.
words are my friends. words are wings. protect.
i have a room of my own. i shall always have a room of my own. that i will. this cancer girl gotta have a room of her own.
one by one the ones who must play—enter.
the search for that note—that only one. its a jam for the
heartbeat. no feet tapping. no hands clapping.
i walk slow through daybreak-blue. back to north beach.
my lids fold around my whole being.
(an excerpt from I ALWAYS THOUGHT YOU BLACK)
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).