Maverick Spirit Award - ruth weiss



Film Info
Type of Film/Event:Big Event


This once in a lifetime experience, along with the premiere screening of ruth weiss: beat goddess, is part of the March 8 Poets N Film event at the Hammer Theatre.

To attend this Maverick Spirit event, please purchase a ticket for the Poets N Film event.

March 8th, 2:00PM at the Hammer Theatre

The name may not evoke the same iconic imagery as her contemporary fellow poets Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Gary Snyder, but make no mistake, ruth weiss (not a typo; she prefers her name all lower-case) was as equal a force and influence as those revered artists of the Beat Generation. She became such a major player in the San Francisco poetry and music world that the fabled San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen fittingly dubbed her as the “Goddess of the Beats.” Or, as weiss would write it, “goddess of the beats.” As she declared in a 2012 interview: “Poetry is my life.” And she’s still going strong. At 93, her incessant drive to explore life and its endless possibilities makes her a truly remarkable example of what constitutes the essence of a genuine maverick. She fits the Cinequest ideal like the carefully selected words of a beautifully composed haiku.

weiss developed wanderlust out of necessity at a young age, having had to flee Europe with her parents during the rise of Nazi Germany. The family arrived in New York in 1939, when weiss was just eleven, and ended up settled in Chicago where she first showed signs of her brilliance and a fierce independence. Following the end of WWII, the family returned as American citizens to Germany and worked for the Army of Occupation. While at school in Switzerland, ruth began to write and explore, hitchhiking around Europe and cutting her teeth as a burgeoning iconoclast and poet.

Following the family’s return to Chicago in 1948, ruth left home at 21, settling into a bohemian artists’ community for a few years before thumbing her way west, to San Francisco. It wasn’t long until she connected to the emerging art and music scene and began holding poetry sessions that dovetailed into jamming with local jazz musicians. She was among the first poets to read to the pulsating rhythms and heady improvisations of jazz. While such collaboration might have seemed an odd mix at the time, it was no surprise to weiss. Her life’s journey can be likened to an explorer’s discovery of something that has always been there. As she so matter-of-factly stated in a 2012 interview, “Jazz and poetry come from the soul. The unexpected is always around the corner.” To her, it’s not the notes or words on a page, it’s the music and its mysterious, temporal nature. The unexpected, that’s what weiss has always been after.

Following her precedent, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and other newly arrived East Coast transplants filled the North Beach clubs and cafes with new sounds and a raging excitement. She and Kerouac first met in 1952 and they turned out to be the proverbial kindred spirits, often communicating in poetic code, spending hours writing and exchanging haikus over bottles of wine. At times, Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s Dean Moriarty in On The Road, would load the two young writers into his car and speed off into the nearby countryside, looking for that next thrilling experience that lay just over the hill.

In 1961 weiss published the long narrative poem, The Brink, furthering her exploration and expression of Beat consciousness, being fully present in the all-things-are-temporary moment. The poem firmly established weiss’s stature as a major poet and was subsequently made into a 40-minute film. At the time, characterized as experimental, it eschewed traditional narrative and embraced jazz for its inspiration and its daring execution. As is so often the case with groundbreaking art, The Brink was far ahead of its time. With no outlet for distribution, it unfortunately sank into relative obscurity and is only now being revisited and appreciated.

The lack of public and commercial success of The Brink did not at all deter weiss. She moved briskly on and wrote what she describes as her masterpiece, Desert Journal. The poem embarks on a 40-day journey into the mind of a disembodied narrator in a desert wasteland. Each day consists of other poems, limited to five pages that stand alone while at the same time integrating with the greater whole. Each “day” reveals new suffering and peace, but passes no judgement. Written over a period of sixteen years, the poem, as so much of weiss’s work, is intended not for solitary silent reading, but performance.

Now, into her ninth decade, weiss has little interest in slowing down. Her energy seems boundless and she still performs whenever possible, ardently pursuing those limitless unknowns that lie ahead. Summing it up in her typically clear and concisely poetic prose: “The Best is yet to come. The Worst is past.” – P.D. Crane