ruth weiss's family fled Nazi Germany for Austria in 1933, but was forced out of the country within five years. In "Single Out," weiss describes her family's 1939 escape from Austria -- on the last train permitted to cross the border -- in words that evoke the terror of their flight, but that also reflect her lifelong interest in the music of words:
one woman slips in the mud . . .
The "shotssinging" of "swiss sharpshooters" evokes a terrifying rhythm laid down by bullets, and broken only by the "one woman," like weiss an "obvious unaryan," who "slips in the mud." The grammar is deliberately erratic, and matches the "realenough" disorientation of the family's flight. weiss and her family arrived in Holland, where they embarked by ship to the United States; most of her family remaining in Europe died in the concentration camps. In 1946, after seven years in New York and Chicago, weiss's family returned to Germany, and she attended school in Switzerland. She eventually moved back to Chicago in 1948. According to Beat biographer Brenda Knight, weiss "gave her first reading to jazz" in Chicago in 1949, and she spent the next year hitchhiking around the country -- from Chicago to New York, to New Orleans, to Chicago again. She eventually made it to San Francisco, living briefly in 1952 at 1010 Montgomery Street, which would be Allen Ginsberg's home three years later, in the summer of 1955, when he composed the first draft of "Howl."
These nomadic experiences help shape a sensitivity in weiss's work to border crossings of all kinds. weiss's poetry blurs boundaries between text and jazz, autobiography and history, page-poetry and performance-poetry. Her acclaim as a poet and poetry-jazz performer emerged during the early years of the Beat Generation and the San Francisco Renaissance of the 1950s, and her experiments with poetry, jazz, spontaneous composition, and haiku are contemporaneous with Kerouac's. Just so, poetry is, for weiss, the irreducible spark for all of her art. In a 2002 interview with Raymond Nat Turner and Zigi Lowenberg, she says, "I have done plays, I've done paintings, I've done stories, I've done theatre pieces, but I consider myself a poet whose other work -- paintings, etc. -- are [sic] simply an extension of the poem." She is part of what Ronna C. Johnson and Nancy M. Grace, editors of Girls Who Wore Black: Women Writing the Beat Generation, describe as the "first generation" of female Beat writers. These first-generation female Beats were shaped by the same historical events as their more well known male counterparts, though they received much less attention than male Beats. As Johnson and Grace write, these women, like the men, "sought to revise or work free of academic or traditional literary models, or innovate new ones for their post-bomb, cold-war-era experience."
weiss has lived a life purposefully on the aesthetic edge of contemporary culture, as male Beats themselves have done. But for female Beats, "Bohemian counterculture" often was threatened by dominant ideals of middle-class domesticity in the post-World War II era -- the same ideals Beat Generation literature often subverts. In the minds of male Beats, women were not generally considered part of the journey of Bohemia, except as middle-class wife-mother figures, helping along their male partners' countercultural pursuits by the domestic foundations they provided. As novelist Joyce Johnson writes in her memoir Minor Characters: "I'd listen to [Kerouac] with delight and pain, seeing all the pictures he painted so well for me, wanting to go with him. Could he ever include a woman on his journeys? I didn't altogether see why not. Whenever I tried to raise the question, he'd stop me by saying that what I really wanted were babies." weiss's work stands in direct challenge to this male-centered model of Bohemian art. She is a prolific, eclectic artist, and her publicly exhibited work includes film, video, and watercolor haiku. She continues to perform her poetry in the United States and Europe, often performing with jazz accompaniment, and she was one of the featured performers at the 2000 Jazz Fest Berlin festival. weiss's journeys, her border-crossing life experiences and artistic performances, remind us that women Beats thrived as writers and artists in their own right, despite the middle-class social and cultural pressures often exerted by their male counterparts.
- Tony Trigilio
Audition the poetry and memoirs of ruth weiss.