Beat Meetings #10: Thomas Antonic & ruth weiss
A connection with Austrian roots
Thomas Antonic is an Austrian Literature scholar and musician with special interests in the Beat Generation and a particular enthusiasm William Burroughs and the cut-up theory. The poet ruth weiss (1928-2020) originally lived in Vienna but left for the US before the Second World War. She is often linked to the early evolution of jazz poetry. In 2021, Antonic completed his first feature length documentary film on the writer, ruth weiss: One More Step West Is the Sea.
Who did you meet?
Where did you meet her?
When did you meet her?
The first meeting was in 2012. She was 84 back then.
How did this meeting come about?
At that time, I had started a research project covering transnational connections between the Beats and Austrian literature and culture in general. For example, I knew Burroughs had studied medicine in Vienna in the 1930s and was fascinated by Wilhelm Reich’s theories and inventions.
Ginsberg and Austrian sound poet Ernst Jandl became friends at the International Poetry Incarnation in 1965, which has been documented in Peter Whitehead’s Wholly Communion. Ginsberg also taught at the Vienna Poetry School in 1993.
Anne Waldman and Ed Sanders were there quite often as well. These are a few examples of the Beat connections with Austria. And very soon I discovered that ruth weiss had grown up in Vienna before escaping the Nazis with her parents in 1938 and emigrating to the United States at the age of 10.
Prior to that, I’d only really heard her name and read some of her poems, but wasn’t aware of her personal history. As I delved into her biographical background, I became increasingly interested in her life and work. Coincidentally, soon after she visited Vienna for a while and through her Austrian publishers Elias Schneitter from Edition BAES and Christa Stippinger from Edition Exil, I was able to meet her and we connected immediately. We had a lovely conversation for about two hours.
What did you discuss/talk about?
At the first meeting we discussed, among other things, her childhood in Vienna, her memories, but also delved into her friendship with Jack Kerouac and Jan Kerouac, how difficult it was for a woman in the 1950s and 1960s to be a poet among the male dominated Beats, her problematic connection with Ginsberg, and her more recent career and acknowledgment after being hyped by Herb Caen in his San Francisco Chronicle column in 1993 and featured in Brenda Knight’s Women of the Beat Generation in 1996.
The conversation was published on the European Beat Studies Network website https://ebsn.eu/scholarship/voices/ruth-weiss-interviewed-by-thomas-antonic/
What were your impressions of the Beat you met?
Considering her age, I was impressed by her vitality and sharp mind. And how easy it was to connect with her, in spite of our age difference of over 50 years. She didn’t seem 84 to me, which was impressive considering her lifestyle, chain smoking, normally being up until 5 or 6 in the morning, getting up at noon and having usually a beer or two for breakfast (and no food!).
And she immediately acknowledged me as a peer, not like some youngster trying to obtain information from an authority on poetry, or something like that. In the many meetings that occurred afterwards, whenever there was someone else present as well, I was able to observe that, in fact, she treated everyone like that. Everyone was her equal, and everyone was treated with the same respect.
She was both witty and modest, yet simultaneously very self-confident, curious, smart and always positive. Quite a magical being, actually. All these initial impressions were corroborated in the meetings I had with ruth after this first one.
In the years since, have these meetings left any particular memories with you?
After this first meeting, many followed, especially after I decided to do a documentary film on her in 2016 and to subsequently write a biography. She invited me to her house in the woods of Northern California where she lived with her partner, Hal Davis, and where I visited her twice a year and sometimes lived under her roof for over a week.
Not only did she become the subject of these two projects, but she also became something of a collaborator and eventually a good friend. So, we not only worked together and spent many many hours in conversations wherein we talked about her life and went through her immense archive, but we also cooked together, watched TV, went on excursions and even to parties and so on.
Naturally there are many singular memories that I have of my time with ruth – far too many to relate here. Yet I can give you a funny anecdote: The only awkward situation that ever occurred between us was when I showed up at her house for the first time and, following conventions and my good education, I brought a bottle of high priced, top-notch red wine as a gift.
We said hello and I gave her the bottle, expecting a smile and a thank you, and she looked at me, irritated and confused, like saying, ‘What the hell is this supposed to be?’ After a long pause of awkward silence she said, ‘Are you going to drink this? Did you bring this for you?’ And I said, ‘No, that’s for you.’ And she put it into a drawer and said, ‘Well, someone’s going to drink it.’
I should have known by then that she was a devotee of beer and never touched anything else. A six-pack of Rolling Rock, which was her favorite beer, would have been the better choice. And that’s what I brought from that day on whenever I visited.
*ruth weiss’ enforced departure from Vienna with her Jewish family in the late 1930s prompted her to adopt a lower case style for her own name, a reaction against the German language’s use of capital letters for nouns, an individual protest resisting the written expression of those who had driven her from Europe.
Note: A paperback edition of the volume ruth weiss: Beat Poetry, Jazz, Art that Thomas Antonic co-edited with Estíbaliz Encarnación-Pinedo is out now. Visit: https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.1515/9783110694550/html
See also: ‘Beat Soundtrack #21: Thomas Antonic’, July 20th, 2022