In a career that spanned over 92 years, the life of prolific beat poet Ruth Weiss is celebrated in Melody C. Miller’s feature documentary, ruth weiss, the beat goddess.
Born in Berlin, Weiss began showing signs of becoming a prolific writer at the early age of five. With the gradual rise of Hitler, her family would leave Germany and move to Vienna, where her love of writing was encouraged by her mother and quickly blossomed. At age ten, Weiss and her parents would narrowly escape Hitler’s reach after Austria’s annexation. Fortunate to escape Nazi Germany, Weiss and her parents eventually found refuge in the United States, as their lives changed when their ship arrived in New York City.
The land of opportunity was fertile ground for Weiss’ writing to blossom and evolve. When her family moved to Chicago, she was sent to a Catholic boarding school, where nuns encouraged her to write, and she quickly published two books of poetry. Then, as a young adult, Weiss befriended musician Ernest Alexander. He found her poems and encouraged her to read them on stage while his jazz band accompanied her (a story told way better in ruth weiss, the beat goddess).
After discovering musicians like Charlie Parker, Weiss moved to New Orleans to further evolve and hone the art form she is closely associated with today, beat jazz poetry. Then, because of her affinity with fog, Weiss moved to her final hometown of San Francisco in 1952. Here, she became an innovator of beat jazz poetry by introducing the art form to San Francisco and the West Coast. San Francisco is also where she would meet her contemporaries, Jack Kerouac and Alan Ginsberg.
“…she became an innovator of beat jazz poetry…”
ruth weiss, the beat goddess not only traces the life story of Weiss, but we become the audience during several public performances of her on stage. As she performs, Weiss is accompanied by her jazz band in a sort of improvisation and symbiotic relationship with Weiss and her words. The band melds with the poet’s meter, tempo, and emotion, which inspires their music. In other settings, director Miller accompanies Weiss’ recitations with modern interpretive dance set in various locations throughout San Francisco. The filmmaker also uses portrait-like animation to illustrate her life as a child and her formative years in Chicago and New Orleans.
The film delves into her activism as well. Beat poetry, in a way, gave birth to the hippie movement. Weiss, Kerouac, and Ginsberg had already begun pushing the boundaries of “decency” in the U.S. at the time and tested the limits of censorship. Her stances on equality and gay rights continued to progress to contemporary issues of the environment, along with warnings against fascist presidents.
I’ll admit, poetry isn’t precisely my swing. But to say that Weiss’ life is fascinating is a severe understatement. One interview subject describes her as Zelig-like because she was involved in and influenced many of the major civil rights movements over the decades. Weiss was an example of a woman who knew what she wanted to do with her life at age five and fought to make a living doing the only thing she knew to do, write. Agree with Weiss or not, it’s hard not to see her fingerprints all over modern U.S. history. ruth weiss, the beat goddess expertly takes us over why that is.