ruth weiss is one of the most interesting and least appreciated of the Beat writers. Thankfully, though, she is undergoing something of a resurgence of popularity, with the recent publication of a book on her work (ruth weiss. Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art, reviewed here) and two films about her life (ruth weiss: the Beat Goddess and One More Step West is the Sea).
I recently had the chance to see ruth weiss: the Beat Goddess, a documentary by Melody C. Miller, and I enjoyed it immensely. Indeed, despite the sometimes serious or even tragic subject matter, it is a remarkably upbeat and often funny film, in large part due to its subject’s wonderful sense of humour.
The film begins with weiss reading “White is All Colours” over images of a snowy landscape, before we are introduced to the teal-haired poet in her home. She reads for us her first poem, written when she was five years old, and tells us “I knew all my life, from as long as I can remember, that I am to be a poet, and that is what I would apply my life to, and that the poems would have meanings in the world.”
She then explains her writing process, as we watch her sitting outside her cabin with pen, paper, cigarettes (she is smoking in almost every scene), a chalice, and a typewriter:
I visualise in my mind what is a person or a place or what… I don’t like a lot of description; I like something to evoke just by a few words put together. I want the subject of whatever it is to present itself in its deeper way.
Of course, weiss was always interested in poetry as a spoken and often multidisciplinary art, so from her handwriting poetry we are taken to a scene of the poet reading her work aloud against a jazz accompaniment. This is a reading from her Desert Journal, so it is partly read over footage of a woman doing interpretive dance in the desert – another layer of artistic performance.
Such performances make poetry seem easy – a natural flow of words against a seemingly freeform musical background, as though the words and notes were plucked without prior thought, but of course this is far from true, and so we are presented with more of weiss’ writing process. We see her writing a few words, then tossing away the piece of paper over and over as she searches for the writing combination of words. Eventually, when satisfied, she declares, “That’s the time to type it up” and removes the cloth cover from her old typewriter.
It is a wonderful approach to a documentary. We have heard the poet’s voice, seen the poet’s process, and only then are we told of her importance. It is after we have become familiar with ruth – who constantly cracks jokes and seems utterly at ease on camera – that we have input from Brenda Knight (author of Women of the Beat Generation) and Jerry Cimino (owner of the Beat Museum). They add historical and literary context – it is valid, interesting, appropriate, without being overly literary, allowing the documentary to focus on ruth the person and not become bogged down in academia.
After this, ruth tells us her life story. Again, she is humorous, despite this involving great tragedy as her family attempts to flee the Nazi invasion of Austria. Here, simple but beautiful animation illustrates her tale as her family is shot at in an attempt to enter Switzerland, then saved from being sent to the concentration camps, before escaping successfully to America.
In America, weiss continued to write, producing a novel and two books of poetry at the age of twelve. She sends a poem about the Statue of Liberty to President Roosevelt and – incredibly – receives a reply. Freedom is an important theme throughout. She was given a huge amount of it by her parents, and in America rejected the constrictive societal norms placed upon women, hitchhiking to New Orleans, dying her hair green, and then not just writing poetry but reading it aloud.
Again, I’ll emphasise her sense of humour. In talking about her education, she mentions excelling at numerous subjects (geometry, Latin, etc) but almost failing typing. A teacher refused to give her an F only because it would ruin another otherwise excellent academic record and, ruth notes with a laugh, “Today, it’s the only thing that I’m still using.” In the next scene, seemingly finished with a story, she takes a swig from a bottle of Stella Artois and looks at the camera as though to say, “I’m ninety and I’ve never played by the rules; I’m not going to start now.”
Even when talking about adversity and prejudice, she maintains her refreshing wit. After a section dealing with the sexism faced by female poets, she tells us that Allen Ginsberg said of her, “She’s a very nice woman but not much of a poet.” She laughs hard and corrects him: “No, you got it turned around… I’m not a nice woman, but I’m a great poet!”
From New Orleans, we are taken to San Francisco, where weiss meets a young Jack Kerouac and they stay up all night trading haiku. “I wish I still had those haiku,” she says, adding cheekily: “I’d be a millionaire today!” Then, she tells us that Kerouac blacked out and Neal Cassady showed up to take her on an adventure in a stolen car. This is all told in a charming animated sequence.
There are glimpses of her other pursuits, including film, and more footage of her reading her poems. Then we are introduced to Hal Davis, her partner, whom she met at the age of eighty. We see them performing together and trading poems like young lovers. “I’m grateful,” she tells us, for all the ways that life has provided her opportunity in spite of hardship.
The film ends with an emotional reading of a 1988 poem, “Turnabout.” She wrote it in protest of an attempt to put oil rigs in a beautiful bay, something that would have damaged the wildlife there, including whales “and all the other critters of the sea.” The original protest was successful, but sadly the threat has been raised once again. She finishes the poem looking down, sad, tired that she has to protest once again something that should so long ago have been settled. It is a depressing end but poignant, all the more given events in the US this past month. But weiss’ attitude throughout the documentary is a reminder of the power of positivity and perseverance.
You can learn more about ruth weiss and this film (including options for how to watch it) here.