Myles Dannhausen Jr. | An Afternoon in the Coop

16 12 2014

Myles Dannhausen Jr. | A Bridge in Progress | Norb Blei and the pursuit of the writer’s life
Norb Blei is the subject of a lengthy feature in the latest edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas, the magazine of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters. In it, Door County native and longtime Peninsula Pulse contributor Myles Dannhausen Jr. examines the deep-rooted conviction to craft that made Blei a much-admired writer and teacher, but also the stubborn streak that cost the native Chicagoan a platform and opportunities later in his career. Here Dannhausen recounts the visit to the Coop that lead to the story.

To read Dannhausen’s “A Bridge in Progress,” click here>>

Blei on his own turf in Ellison Bay, Door County, standing in front of a sign welcoming—or, considering the coyote, possibly warning away—visitors to his converted chicken coop writer’s studio. -- Photo by John Nelson

Blei on his own turf in Ellison Bay, Door County, standing in front of a sign welcoming—or, considering the coyote, possibly warning away—visitors to his converted chicken coop writer’s studio. — Photo by John Nelson


I met Norb Blei too late.

At 32, I had grown restless and claustrophobic in my hometown community of Door County. I knew that I needed to grow as a writer, so I left for a city that had pulled at me as long as I could remember: Chicago.

Forty-three years earlier, at almost the same age, Blei had suffered from a similar anxiety while living in Chicago. Only his pull was to Door County, where he felt he could write what he wanted to, the way he wanted to.

Somehow, I had never met Norb, at least not formally. He occasionally sat on a Husby’s barstool as I filled frosty mugs, and more than once I passed him as he held court at the Al Johnson’s coffee table with Al and their crew of old friends. They were starting their days, I was ending my nights.

But we never spoke one-on-one until September of 2012, when I drove up from Chicago and visited him in his Ellison Bay coop.

By then, sadly, he was wasting away. He had beaten esophageal cancer, but the remnants of that fight were stealing pieces of him every day. His appetite was gone, and the man who once filled out his trench coat so ably now wore clothes that fit him like worn hand-me-downs from a much bigger brother.

Still, he rose each morning from his bed in that cedar shake cabin in the woods, amidst walls stacked to the ceiling with books, in a house still not isolated enough for him to find the authentic writing he sought all his life. So he trudged out, across his gravel driveway, into his famous coop.

He was already sitting at his computer when I knocked tentatively on the coop door. I was nervous. Blei’s temper was known to flare, and he had recently pushed another young interviewer to tears when he determined that she was ignorant of his work.

He welcomed me in, and sitting in his chair he was the textbook vision of a writer. His hair white, his mustache giving him a walrus visage that made his expression difficult to read. Is that a smile or a smirk? Is he mulling, or is he angry?

In the coop on that September Sunday in 2012, squeezed amongst stacks of books, magazines, and newspapers, Blei’s stubbornness was displayed as urgency. There were books to be finished, writers to nurture, stories waiting for his pen. His verbal ticks were those of a writer’s mind scattered:

“I’d like to write a book about…”

“I’m going to write a story about…”

“I wish I had interviewed…”

“I’d like to get Ingert to write her thoughts down…”

He was struggling to make progress now, his writing hours shorter and shorter as he fought his self-made distractions and father time. He loved “this Internet thing,” fascinated that, as the market for books faded, he was in greater touch with his readers than ever before. His typewriter was gone, replaced by a computer and large external monitor, the new marks of the modern writer.

His face lit up as we talked about the greatest firestorm of his career, when he railed against development in Door County in a short-lived tenure as a columnist at the Door Reminder.

“I could just fly,” he said. “I got away with murder there.”

More than two decades later he remained an angry journalist, desperate to see the pot stirred, the comfortable made uncomfortable, complacency turned to argument. “Who’s writing about poverty?” he said. “Who’s covering the county board?!? Nobody! There are no journalists anymore.”

As he railed, I couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t among them. Why he couldn’t just work well enough with others to take on some of these issues himself. But that was Norb, the Coyote firing from the outside in, where he felt he could make the biggest impact.

Now he was determined to finish dozens of projects left undone. Some of these projects were just empty folders on the desktop of his computer, little more than a file with a title inside. Others were represented in piles of hand-written notes and ideas gathering dust in the large stacks of books and papers that surrounded his desk.

Norb was not finished with us yet.

When the September sun was fading on my visit to the coop, it was clear Norb needed a break. He walked me out to his driveway with a pit-stop at his car. There he carried the true mark of a Midwestern writer – a trunk full of copies of his books, ready to hustle.

He gave me copies of each, and we spent a few minutes on his stoop as he told me of the time Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago columnist, visited him here.

We talked about catching up in Chicago sometime. I wanted him to take me down to his old neighborhood, Cicero, for a stroll. Blei was enthusiastic, said he needed to get back there again. He stood on his stoop and waved as I backed out of the driveway, and after three hours, I could tell there was a smile beneath his mustache.

We traded emails and planned future visits, but his failing health intervened.

After waving goodbye to him on his stoop, I never saw him again. He died in April of 2013.

But for me, and for anyone who dares attempt to write anything of substance about the people and places of Door County, Blei is still here, his shadow looming, his standard beyond our reach.– Myles Dannhausen

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

The interior to Blei’s writer’s studio reflects a man with many ideas and avenues for exploration. - Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

The interior to Blei’s writer’s studio reflects a man with many ideas and avenues for exploration. – Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Dannhausen_mugMyles Dannhausen Jr. is a native of Door County now living in Chicago, just a couple of miles from the neighborhood where author Norb Blei grew up. Dannhausen is a contributing editor for the Peninsula Pulse newspaper and Door County Living, and has also written for Chicago Athlete, Exclusively Yours, Running Times, UltraRunning, and GapersBlock.com. He returns to Door County frequently to work his parents’ garden and serve as course director of the Door County Half Marathon, Peninsula Century Ride, Spring Classic Ride, and organize the Door County Beer Festival.





Warren P. Nelson | Poem for Norbert Blei

14 12 2014
Warren Nelson at Big Top Chautauqua © Sophia Hantzes

Warren Nelson at Big Top Chautauqua © Sophia Hantzes

This is a poem for Norbert Blei, great friend of mine, a soulmate of Wisconsin transported from Chicago. Norbert lives in Door County where for many years he has practiced his great writing art in the conscience of our times. I admire (as do so many) his incredible voice lifting through his writings, and his presence in the landscape of what was and could be. Norbert has SPINE! Like his books written under the hat of his name. He is a Wisconsin treasure with a hark to the nation. Besides his own incredible works, he has published through his Cross+Roads Press many books of poems and prose of other writers who deserve attention. He works out of his “Coop” but he’s no chicken of a voice. More like a rooster crowing to the day to wake up! Google Norbert and begin your way into his world if you aren’t yet familiar.

NORBERT BLEI – March 26, 2010

Codger, a dodger, confidence trickster-
Keeper of Wisconsin.
Writer, let’s know, of great Wisconsin wrongs.

I would lay light that his work
Unpaving a road through Door County
Will whisk dust up for young writers to come to
Find voice and camp there in their own
With a consciousness of no conciliations,
Follow their bare bones loosening the bullshit
To fit this new world that frighteningly forgets the old.
Prose man, poet blender.
Sender off to the world
His great working gifts.

A presence lifted from Illinois
Took the flyway of Lake Michigan
And built a nest as eagles do north
Where all can be seen from.

Perched in his coop to
Sway swoop down on any day.
Craft steeped like how-ever-old-he-is whiskey.
You can smell it on his breathway-
The truth.

Honor to the deep in shallow politics.
He is editing our time,
The anger all behind a voice of sweetness.

Plow the road.
Like that crazy crooked county road
That hauls all to the landing across from
Washington Island.
Jesus, who platted that?
Only one who can laugh along the way.

Norbert Blei ferries himself across
All of us.

Warren P. Nelson





Doug Bradley | The Write Stuff

14 12 2014
DSCN0139

Norbert Blei

Doug Bradley | The Write Stuff – 05/14/2013

Norbert Blei — writer, teacher, editor, publisher, and artist — died late last month in Door County, Wisconsin. It would take several blogs to do him justice, so I won’t even try. But I will try to explain his substantial impact on a fledgling writer he took pity on in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I am a storyteller. I am called to the page,” is how Norbert Blei once described his life. Amazingly, in that calling (he wrote 17 books), the former Chicagoan was often “called” to the pages of other writers as well, pages like mine.

I met Norbert Blei in July 1984 when he was writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s School of the Arts at Rhinelander. I was serving as a manuscript reader for another of the writing classes offered that week and was immediately drawn to Norb’s walrus mustache, ruffled clothes, and gruff demeanor. We quickly struck up a friendship, supported by our mutual fondness for writing, the outdoors, and Scotch-infused late night conversations.

Given this level of comfort, I was eager to have Norb look at one of the shorter pieces I was working on for what I’d decided would be a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. As busy as he was that week, Norb not only read my story, but he went through it line by line, circling words he didn’t think worked and writing comments like “too much explaining here,” “be careful with this scene,” and “not sure about this” alongside “good” and “excellent scene.” That was enough for me to leave Rhinelander that summer inspired – and determined to finish my collection.

We exchanged letters a few weeks later, and Norb, as I’m sure was his fashion, took off the gloves. “You’ve got to want to do it (writing). Need to do it. Need to discover just how fucking hard it is out there (in here). To say what you want to say in a way that will satisfy yourself and others. There are no guarantees. And it’s mostly failure . . . “ Well, at least he closed by adding “I hope you’ll stay with the writing.”

I did.

Several months later, I sent three additional pieces to Norb, and he again replied with his usual directness: “I very much like what you’re doing,” he wrote, much to my delight, “I think it’s a book . .” and then came the BUT. Or rather two pages of them, critiquing just about everything I was doing wrong as a story teller, concluding with: “Consider my remarks either helpful or bullshit. I can live with both.”

The question was, could I live with any more of these broadsides from Blei?

Fast forward ten years and I’ve stumbled across an article about Norb and his CROSS+ROADS PRESS, a small publishing operation he’d established for “first chapbook publishing” of works by emerging poets, short story writers, novelists and artists. Maybe this was my chance at being published? Plus, I knew Norbert Blei! I quickly bundled what I thought were my three best stories off to Norb, only to receive a swift and resounding “no.” But again, in that unique Norbert Blei way — via a three-page rejection letter!

“These are good stories, but not ‘great stories'” he began. “I want great stories. These are stories with the potential of becoming great but I do not have the time to sit down with you and help you to shape them.” Then this advice — “You only get better by reading more, writing more, and looking deeper into your own life and measuring it against all the risks a writer must take to grow.”

He closed the letter by suggesting a new title for one of the stories I’d sent (“You Baby Ruth” was his recommendation, which I used) and by quoting George V. Higgins: “If you haven’t always been doing it, you haven’t always wanted to do it.”

I didn’t rip up Norb’s letter in a fit of anger. In fact, I took out the three stories, placed them alongside Norb’s excellent critique, and began to rewrite them, improve them, and take risks with them. It took me another 16 years to complete the collection, and I am convinced that DEROS Vietnam wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Norbert Blei.

I gave Norb a shout-out in the Acknowledgments when the book was published last November. And I intended to send him an autographed copy with my thanks, but never got around to it, much to my regret.

Fittingly, Norb died on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday. Perhaps the bard was thinking of Norb when he penned these lines:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.





Paula Kosin | On Losing a Teacher, Losing a Friend Norbert Blei (1935-2013)

13 12 2014
Norbert-Blei

Stories at birth, before birth, every moment of our lives to the end. We breathe telling tales. And then what happened? The story ends? The story never ends. We are immortal. We are myth. We remember. — Norbert Blei (August 23, 1935 – April 23, 2013)

Your coop in the woods,
so like you,
stacked floor to ceiling
precious books
unfinished manuscripts
correspondence from friends
a million compelling projects.
You had a bucket list
decades long,
driven by intense urgency.
So many things to do,
to learn to write to teach
and, always, to challenge.
So many conversations to savor,
seasons to welcome,
seasons to weather
in your beloved Door.
You used to wish me:
Nazdar! Be well!
Now I pledge to you:
Na shledanou!
Until we see each other again.

I knew Norb through his articles in the Chicago Tribune during the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was in high school and college, and this man’s writing made that kind of impact on me. I had always wondered what happened to him, since his byline disappeared from the paper. (Of course, that’s when he moved up to Door County.) In 2003, in preparation for my first trip to the Door, I eventually came to The Clearing’s website. Scanning the list of classes, I clicked on Writing Workshop — and there was Norb! I immediately emailed him, asking if he was available to meet with me to discuss my possibility of attending his class that next summer. That weekend we met over a beer, and talked of both his class and of “the old neighborhood.” You see, my grandparents and parents – and large extended family – are from Cicero, Illinois, the ethnic Czech/Bohemian/Polish culture so beautifully captured in Norb’s Tribune articles and book, Neighborhood. Since then, I have had the opportunity to be in several of his classes and a couple of weekend workshops up on Washington Island. I knew from the minute I saw his picture on that Clearing website, I had been given a second chance. And I took it.

To leave this world with a perpetually unfinished long list of things you still want to do — and no unfinished business with the people in your life…well, I think that’s the way to go. — Paula Kosin

 





Warren Bluhm | The spirit of Norbert Blei remains in this place

12 12 2014
Norbert Blei

Ralph Rausch – Photo taken from the back cover “Adventures in an American’s Literature by Norbert Blei – The Ellis Press, 1982

They came to remember; they came to praise; they came to celebrate a man; they came to celebrate this place, and they came to remember the man who described what a special place it was as it was becoming what it is — often with alarm, always with love.

Saturday was a beautiful Door County day, the gardens at Peninsula Players Theatre were growing lush in the early summer sun, and the highways were comfortably filled with travelers on their way to a destination and friends coming here to pay tribute to Norbert Blei, who died April 23 at age 77.

As the Rev. Michael Brecke put it, Blei was a newspaperman, teacher, artist, poet, and critic, “calling us to task when we stopped loving the land and the water in this place,” and a writer.

“He wrote about the characters in this place and then became one,” said Brecke, who also noted Blei’s gravestone reads, “Find me in my books.”

And for an hour or so, they did: Each of the speakers who shared personal experiences about how he had moved their lives also read a bit from his books.

When Tim Stone first came to Door County, he was told by the locals that “if we ever had a prayer of being one of them, we had to read his books.”

And in Blei’s books they found wisdom — Robert Zoschke read “It’s good to pause now and then and see where the hell you were at” and advice not just for writers but all of us — “the important thing is to get the work done.”

They spoke of the man who would write in his converted chicken coop and teach about the writer’s passion at the Clearing and sit at the counter at Al Johnson’s with a cup of coffee, listening and talking.

“I know that there is a coffee table in heaven and I know that they may have a seat for Norb, but I’m sure he’ll elbow his way in and take over in a short time,” said Annika Johnson, who brought along one of the family’s goats named Beelzebub.

“I love his words, I love his voice, I love his mustache,” Julian Hagen said simply before launching into his song “Northern Light,” and Jeanne Kuhns sang “A Song for Norb,” and Pete Thelen and Jay Whitney led a rousing rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” adopted to Door County.

Stone noted that when the Clearing was struggling for survival in 1985, Blei wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune, “Door County’s Clearing: A Secret School in the Woods for Adults,” the reservations began to come in and Jens Jensen’s amazing vision was secured for another generation. There was much talk about the iconic teacher who worked hard to prepare his classes and stayed late at the Clearing to give each aspiring writer personal attention.

But then Bridget Buff came up, and her voice struggled against the tears as she talked about the man who would read to her as she sat in his lap, and make enormous breakfasts and walk her to the bus stop, and mail letters to her even when they lived in the same house, and how “he loved winter and I did not.”

And that was when we remembered the legendary icon was also a man who loved his daughter and his son Christo. The poet who captured the soul and the people of Door County was also a daddy; in fact Norb Blei first came here in 1969 to give them a special place to grow up.

“His home, his heart and his spirit are here forever, and he wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bridget said.

Nor would we.

Warren Bluhm – Wednesday, July 3, 2013





Richard Purinton | NORBERT BLEI 1935-2013

12 12 2014
Detroit Harbor, Washington Island

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island

I’ve got things to do today, but I find it hard to start on any one of them before first getting this out of my system, if that is possible to do with a few words. But, it’s the best way, for now.

When word came that Norbert Blei passed away yesterday morning, an event many knew was only a matter of days, even hours in coming, a sense of peace came over me. He had struggled with life itself these past months and seemed frustrated at not having his energy back to do the many things he had started or mentally committed to doing.

Thinking back on what grabbed me most about Norb, it was his passion for taking on more than he should, or could do at one time, then quickly building enthusiasm for his next project. And sometimes it was “their” project, or my project, not necessarily his own. He was not a fence-rider or wall flower. He had both feet in, at once, and something about this rubbed off on me, his need to get on with what seems to reside deeply within in order to provide an avenue for expression.

He was both friend and teacher, not that he taught me in any formal sense, and not that we often got together to visit. But, when we did visit the conversation flowed easily and his eyes lit up over nearly any topic, and he became both teacher and friend. Even when his emotion was disgust or anger, his eyes brightened and his words flowed until the subject changed, then he started on the new topic. He was quiet, thoughtful and compassionate, too, but it was the way in which expressed passion for where he lived, and the people he came in contact with, the literature he was reading at the moment, that sticks with me.

As for teacher? I never received a critique from him, never any comment specific enough to make me want to start over or head in a new direction. A few questions from Norb seemed enough. In this unassuming way, he pointed me in new directions and gave me resolve to try harder and dig deeper.

I wouldn’t be writing this piece today – or any essay for that matter – if it weren’t for his silent encouragement, the idea that it is possible for me to write and publish. Write to make a difference, and write to give expression to ideas. There was that pair of dark eyes, and a soft voice muffled by mustache, over my shoulder then, as now. He became a comforting critic, a voice inside my head.

In recent years Norbert took photos and posted them. Some of his photos were excellent, others ordinary, but each showed he was on the job, still working, still an observer. These mostly arrived on my computer screen without words, other than his one-line description. A noticeable loss of energy was seen in those photos, but he still satisfied an urge to be out there, using all of his senses to connect with those he knew – and they were hundreds, if not thousands, in internet terms. On line, this teacher of poetry and literature had a huge audience.

On this day I choose a photo of hundreds of ducks along the shore of Detroit Harbor, remnants of ice still lingering here and there. I think it might look this way in Europe Lake today, too, near Norb’s home, or wherever he drove on his morning rounds when thinking about this place, the seasons and the cycles of life that take place in and around us.

My file photos of Norbert are from the past two years, a time when he was either sick or recovering from serious illness, and they won’t do justice to this man of vigor, energy and quickness. Instead, I’ll retain his image, a vital Norbert Blei with his quiet voice, in my head. - Dick Purinton, Wednesday, April 24, 2013








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