ruth was born in Berlin on June 24th, 1928 — and what a life she’s had so far! Actually, it could have been very short-lived if she and her parents had not managed to escape from Nazi-Germany via Austria and the Netherlands and barely made it to the USA in 1939. Moving from one place to the other became more or less a pattern of her life with stations in Vienna, Chicago, Switzerland, New Orleans, San Francisco, Mexico and a number of others, each one of them a place that shaped her in one way or the other, opened up new horizons, got her into contact with their respective cultural and social peculiarities and definitely inspired her, boosted her talents and influenced her character in a positive way.
Some may wonder why ruth hasn’t written an autobiography yet When I asked her this question she answered: “I don’t have to – it’s all in my poetry.” A good way to verify this is to read her bilingual book full circle – ein kreis vollendet sich, which was published 2002 by edition exil of Vienna, Austria. In a way, the title refers to a period in her life that started with a visit to Vienna in 1998. Since then she has returned to the city, where she had spent phases of her childhood, on many occasions. But on the other hand, the last page of the poetry part has the two lines “IT HAS COME FULL CIRCLE here in Albion.” This is the place in Mendocino County where she still lives in a timber cottage in the middle of a redwood forest. The two lines may sound like ruth has been satisfied with her life and is retreating. But her inscription on the first page of my copy suggests something else. It reads “the circle…became spiral…and continues”. The spiral is an ancient symbol of creation, of change as well as order, a symbol of life due to its structure that leads both in and out and up down.
Of course, like everybody, ruth has experienced ups and downs in her life, but she has definitely found more and more recognition over the decades. It was a long way up the spiral from Chicago, where she first had the idea to fuse poetry and jazz in the late 1940s, to the renown she has nowadays. A first step to some kind of fame came after she moved to San Francisco in 1952, where she started to perform poetry accompanied by jazz musicians at a club named The Cellar.
The famed SF Chronicle columnist Herb Caen called her “The Goddess of The Beat Generation”, thus creating a nickname which is still sometimes used today. In the second half of the 1950s she started publishing some of her works in the Beat magazine Beatitude and so she received some more attention, at least in certain circles, which was perhaps boosted by the publication of her book, Gallery of Women, which came out in 1959. In addition, she started something that might be called networking today by turning her apartment into a meeting place for writers and other artists.
It is amazing to see lists that show how active ruth was in the 1960s and 70s. She played major roles in five films by Steven Arnold, turned her poem, “The Brink”, into a film script and filmed it. Besides that, she produced seven plays and had five books of her poetry published, among them Desert Journal, which has been critically acclaimed, especially during our present decade, which saw a new edition of it.
ruth’s activities in Vienna included teaching at a writing academy as well as performance gigs in jazz clubs. Her books, published by the local edition exil, were mentioned in the papers, on the radio, and on TV. In the course of time she gained a certain publicity there which led to bookings in other Austrian cities like Linz and Hall. A ruth weiss festival in Vienna in the year 2006 lasted almost a month.
Her activities in Europe were not confined to Austria though. She was also busy in the Czech Republik on several occasions, especially in Prague, where a bilingual edition of her book A new View of Matter was published in 1999.
In the same year, she also toured Germany and took part in the Words & Voices Festival, Heidelberg. A highlight was her performance at the Jazz Fest Berlin in the year 2000 with three jazz musicians accompanying her. (A recording of it used to be available on CD.) Her gig was also part of a radio feature about her. Other places where she performed in Germany were Nuremberg, Fuerth, Neumarkt Opf. and some more. From November 2016 to April 2017 a showcase filled with books by ruth weiss was on exhibit as part of an immense Beat Generation exhibition at the renowned ZKM museum in Karlsruhe which included Jack Kerouac’s famous On the Road scroll.
Features about ruth in two issues of Beat Scene magazine published in Coventry, England in 2001 created a push for her popularity in Europe. They showed some nice pictures of her and informed in quite a detailed way about her biography and her talents. One of them contained a transcript of a very interesting interview that Kevin Ring, the editor, had done with her. Her name and a photo of her were on each of the front pages among those of other Beat writers with big names like William Burroughs, Gary Snyder, and Jack Kerouac. One of the issues was a special edition celebrating “50 Years of On the Road/”. All this was a clear sign that ruth had landed where she deserves to be.
Nowadays she is more popular in the USA than ever before, partly due to the media but mostly of course due to her charisma, her abilities, her righteousness, her books, and her unique, unforgettable voice.
Although she is 90 years old now, the Beat goes on. ruth is still energetic and continues with performances, hopefully for many years to come. She has had a special relationship with the Beat Museum in San Francisco for quite some time now from which both sides have profited: Jerry Cimino, the owner, because he could be sure that performances by ruth would attract visitors and for ruth it was a fitting attractive venue not too far from her home, enabling her to share her great gift with still more people.
In order to celebrate ruth’s 90th birthday, the Beat Museum will have a ruth Fest on July 28th, 2018. But it is not only a fest for ruth but one at which all the women of Beat Generation are honored. Aside from ruth and her band there will be many special guests, among them Cathy Cassady (Carolyn and Neal Cassady’s daughter) and Kim Shuck, who is the Poet Laureate of San Francisco. Visitors also have the chance to see the screening of a work in progress documentary film about her life.
How I wish I could be there and celebrate with my dear friend ruth!