For a long time, ruth weiss did not want to be known as a poet from the Beat Generation. She still thinks of herself as a “jazz poet.” Jazz and bebop were essential to weiss’s work. She was one of the first to read as jazz musicians played. She is still performing.
North Beach poet Jack Hirschman says, “No American poet has remained so faithful to jazz in the construction of poetry ... others read to jazz or write from jazz. Ruth weiss writes jazz.”
Indeed a jazz ensemble will be on hand for her book launch party in Glen Park on May 6. Her new book is Can’t Stop the Beat: The Life and Words of a Beat Poet. It sounds like an autobiography, but it’s a “poetic memoir,” recalling her life in verse. She was never a fan of convention.
While she once rejected the term “beat,” now, obviously, weiss embraces it.
Her name is in lower case to show her defiance toward the sort of authority she encountered from the Nazis in her native Germany. (German nouns are capitalized.) She and her family escaped to Austria in 1933. As the Nazis moved in, her family got the last train out.
In 1949, weiss hitchhiked to San Francisco, befriending Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. She lived “on the road” for real, the three of them speeding over the hills in a car, going as fast as they could, flirting with mortality. Kerouac and weiss would write haikus to each other. She remained devoted to haiku.
“It cuts the fat away from a poem,” weiss said.
She established a bit of a salon for poets and artists in her North Beach apartment. Always a champion of African-American poets, weiss was also generous in encouraging younger poets and cut a path for women writers. While the Beats may have been enlightened somewhat, they still carried a middle-class sensibility when it came to the role of women.
It’s generally accepted that weiss did not get the recognition she deserved. She introduced jazz and poetry at The Cellar in North Beach in the fifties. She “should have been smarter,” weiss conceded, and recorded the sessions. Other poets made records that advanced their careers.
She was a regular contributor to Beatitude, one of the first Beat magazines, which was there when it all started. Poet Madeline Gleason and weiss ran poetry/jazz shows at clubs that now belong to the ages: The Cellar, The Old Spaghetti Factory, and a little theater called Surprise Voyage. Because poetry “is something communicated by the voice and body,” weiss is also a performance artist. She has written and produced films – she credits the French New Wave filmmakers for their influence – and has written numerous books, including Light and Other Poems, Single Out, Breaking the Rule of Cool: Interviewing and Reading Women Beat Writers, and A New View of Matter. Her Desert Journal is a 200-page book of poetry.
Jazz performance and book signing of Can’t Stop the Beat: The Life and Words of a Beat Poet, by ruth weiss: Bird & Beckett Books and Records, 653 Chenery (near Carrie); May 6, 8 p.m.; (415) 586-3733, www.birdbeckett.com