Weiss, Ruth

(1928– )
   The outcast and the alien are concepts that are long associated with the Beat Generation, but perhaps no one exemplifies these tropes as dramatically as Berlin-born poet ruth weiss. She was an only child of Jewish parents: her father, Oscar Weiss, was a night editor for the Wolfburo news agency and of Hungarian decent; her mother Fani Zlata Weiss was a homemaker whose family was Yugoslavian. By the time weiss was 10, the family had moved to Vienna where she attended a Jewish elementary school. The family’s efforts to escape the repression of Adolf Hitler’s regime failed at that point, however, when weiss and other Jewish children were brutally expelled from their school. Her father was imprisoned for two weeks. After his release and fearing for their lives, the Weiss family fled Austria in December 1938, taking a train to Holland where they boarded the ship Westerland which ferried them to safety in the United States in 1939. Many of weiss’s poems return to memories of these traumatic childhood experiences. As a survivor of the Holocaust, she later registered her antipathy for Nazi totalitarianism by rejecting the conventions of her native language, electing in the 1960s to spell her name in all lower case. This was not her only form of rebellion, however, as she soon mapped out a life devoted to art, self-definition, and cosmic liberation.
   During the war, New York City, Iowa City, and Chicago became sites of refuge for the Weisses, her father supporting the family as a bookkeeper and her mother as a seamstress in various sweatshops. After they moved to Chicago, Oscar and Fani enrolled ruth in a private Catholic high school in Chicago, from which she graduated in 1942. To this day, weiss credits Sister Eulogia, one of the teachers at the school, for encouraging her to write. By 1946 her parents had returned to Europe to work as Americans with the occupation forces. weiss attended school in Switzerland, but she has said that she spent much of this time hitchhiking across Europe, where she had no difficulty finding safe rides from American soldiers: “I wore my saddle shoes and jeans, and they knew I was American.” In 1948 she returned to Chicago with her parents. By that time, weiss had set out to find an environment in which she could evolve as a writer. Whether riding the “L” in Chicago, where she lived in the Art Circle, or sitting in a jazz club, weiss made time to write poetry, a vocation that she had practiced since penning her first poem at age five. She supported herself by working as a dice girl, a waitress, and a nude model. She tried living in New York City and New Orleans as well, but it was not until 1952, when she hitched from Chicago to San Francisco, that she began to establish more permanent roots. After learning that weiss was a poet, her ride decided that bohemian North Beach was where she belonged, dropping her off at the heart of Broadway and Columbus.
   Weiss quickly settled into the area’s avantgarde poetry and arts scene, introducing jazz– poetry readings at The Cellar in 1956, a blending of the two art forms that she had pursued since her Art Circle days in Chicago. Never aligning herself with any single art coterie, weiss says that she was more like a hummingbird, skipping and hopping from one group to another. She attended a few of kenneth rexroth’s evening salons; met Scottish poet Helen Adam; was a close friend of painter Wallace Berman and poet Madeline Gleason; associated with lawrence ferlinghetti, jack micheline, and philip lamantia; worked for musicians Jack Minger, Wil Carlson, and Sonny Wayne (now Sonny Nelson) at The Cellar; and married Mel Weitsman, a Zen priest. She also knew jack kerouac, with whom she has said she wrote haiku in the 1950s.
   Despite the connection to Kerouac in those early years, Weiss never associated herself specifically with the Beat Generation or with pseudoartists known as beatniks—“that was a very bad word,” she later recalled. “Really, an insult.” But in true Beat fashion, she made her own way as an artist, unencumbered by conventional boundaries. She would read on the streets and in bars, doing whatever she could to write poetry and plays, make films, and paint.
   Weiss published her first collection of poems, Steps, in 1958 and her second collection, Gallery of Women, in 1959. The latter, a small but elegant assemblage of short poems, showcases weiss’s gratitude to female friends and feminist pioneers. In 1961 weiss became screenplay writer and director for a film version of her long poem “The Brink.” The black-and-white film, featuring a “he” and “she” who wonder whimsically around San Francicso, draws upon spontaneity, improvisation, and found objects—an unintentional yet effective West Coast partner for the Robert Frank/Albert Leslie Beat film Pull My Daisy which was set in New York City. weiss has remained a prolific writer and performer, not only in California but also in Europe. She has produced seven plays and numerous poem–prints, performed in at least a half-dozen films by Steven Arnold, been published in more than 150 magazines and anthologies, and written 10 books. Since 1998 she has returned to Vienna several times to perform. The North Beach Chamber of Commerce also presented her with its Community Enrichment Award in 1999 for her “lifetime of dedication and commitment to the muses of poetry and jazz.”
   Selections from her collected works were published as A NEW VIEW OF MATTER, a Czech-English edition by Mata Press in 1999. Her most recent work, full circle, is a German-English edition that includes a touching memoir of weiss’s early years in Austria and the United States; it was brought out in 2002 by the Austrian publisher Edition Exil. The most comprehensive collection of her work is housed in the Bancroft Library, the University of California, Berkeley.
■ Grace, Nancy M. “Single Out: ruth weiss.” In Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers, edited by Nancy M. Grace and Ronna C. Johnson, 55–80. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.
■ Knight, Brenda. “ruth weiss: The Survivor.” In Women of the Beat Generation: The Writers, Artists and Muses at the Heart of a Revolution. Berkeley: Conari Press, 1996, 241–256.
■ weiss, ruth. The Brink. 1961 16mm film. 1986 videocassette. San Francisco, Calif.
   Nancy M. Grace

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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