Gregg Cebrzynski on Norbert Blei

17 10 2013


He was one of my favorite writers, and he died on April 23 at the age of 77.

Norbert Blei grew up in my neighborhood of Little Village in Chicago, a neighborhood primarily of Czechs, with a smaller German population and an even smaller Polish population. You wouldn’t believe how wonderful the restaurants and bakeries and butcher shops were.

I met him once, at a book signing he did in 1987 for his collection of essays titled “Neighborhood.” It’s mainly about the town of Cicero, where the Blei family moved to when Norbert was young. Cicero is just west of Chicago, and as a young man I went there often to eat at the Czech restaurants. A lot of my neighbors moved to Cicero when Little Village became dangerous to live in, thanks to the increasing street gangs and their habit of shooting at rival gang members, often missing and killing the innocent.

Norbert moved to Door County, Wisconsin, in 1968, but before that he had been a freelance writer in Chicago for many years. His stories about the city and its famous, and obscure, citizens are examples of writing that when I read them I marveled at his command of the language and how he was able capture a person’s character. There was nothing sentimental about it; Blei was a rare journalist who knew how to tell a story without embellishment, and his subject’s personality would shine through in his or her own words.

He also wrote short-stories, collected in a book titled “The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog.” He wrote books about Door County, my favorites being “Door Steps” and “Door Way.” They were published by Ellis Press. In 1990 he wrote a book about Chicago called “Chi Town,” with chapters on such memorable people as Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, Sydney J. Harris and Bill Mauldin, the famous editorial cartoonist who created the sad-sack GI’s “Willie and Joe” during World War II.

I talked with him at the book signing, about how I grew up in Little Village and was well-acquainted with all the shops and restaurants there that he mentioned in his book, as well as the places in Cicero he wrote about, especially Vasecky’s Bakery. We also talked about the novelist James Jones and how much we both admired his grasp of how people thought and acted on their beliefs, and of course we agreed that Jones was the best writer who depicted World War II and the effect it had on ordinary men, draftees suddenly thrown into battle.

So many of the writers I admired when I was young–Jones, Vonnegut, Styron, Irwin Shaw, Willie Morris, Graham Greene, and now Blei–are gone. It makes me tremendously sad.– Gregg Cebrzynski – May 22, 2013

greggGregg Cebrzynski

I’m the author of “The Champagne Ladies,” a novel. I’m also a long-time journalist who’s won awards for writing, editing and photography. I grew up in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago and now live on the city’s North Side. Despite that, I’m an avid White Sox fan. But I like football more than baseball. Also, pork more than chicken, and I would eat roast beef every day if it wasn’t so expensive. Many people have a personal philosophy, but I do not. However, I go through life remembering the words of Jean Shepherd, who once wrote: “Madness. All is madness.”

Doug Moe: Remembering Norb Blei

17 10 2013


I always let Norb Blei think our first encounter was the kind letter he sent to me in 2002 after I wrote a column about the fiercely talented Florida novelist Harry Crews.

I framed that letter when it arrived and continue to treasure it.

Norb, who died last month at 77, wrote that he, too, was a Crews fan, and in possession of a rare, limited-edition Crews book I was welcome to borrow. He went on to say some nice things about a book I had recently published about Chicago columnist Mike Royko. Norb, who lived in Door County, was from Chicago and knew Royko.

It was a little overwhelming. Norbert Blei was among the Wisconsin authors I most admired. His essays on Door County, which celebrated the land and scolded those who would exploit it, were collected in several books. They had a prized place on my shelf, along with my favorite of his works, “Chi Town,” a collection of pieces about his hometown, on subjects ranging from Studs Terkel to hot dogs.

I managed to communicate some of that to Norb when I wrote him back — the start of a decadelong friendship — but I never told him we had a brief, earlier history.

The first writing I was ever paid for was a book review for the Milwaukee Journal. This was late 1978, and I was 22. I sent an unsolicited review of a novel by Tom McGuane and the Journal’s book editor, Bob Wells, not only printed it, he sent me another book, a short story collection, to review.

I no longer remember the author of the short stories, but I remember well that somewhere in my review I referred to the short story as “a dying art form.”

I remember because not long after the review was printed, there appeared on the Milwaukee Journal books page an essay defending the vitality of the short story form. It was written by Norbert Blei. He referenced my review — though not me by name — and dismissed it as written by “another critical crepe hanger.”

I was aghast, because he was right. Not as many magazines might have been publishing short fiction as once did, but to say the form was on death’s door was lazy thinking. It was a great lesson. Words matter, especially in print.

Thinking back on it now, I can see the response was quintessentially Norb. He could be prickly. He knew good writing, and he recognized poseurs. Not for nothing was he a revered teacher of the craft.

He was also, let me quickly add, full of good humor, an amiable barroom companion, a matchless storyteller.

We met in person the first time a year or so after he sent me the letter about Harry Crews. Norb was going to be in Madison reading from a new edition of “Chi Town” at Canterbury. He came in a day early for a meeting with the University of Wisconsin Press on Monroe Street. They were considering reissuing some of his books. He suggested a drink at the Laurel.

Norb drank Scotch. We commiserated about publishers and were pleased to learn we had a good mutual friend in Chicago journalist Rick Kogan. I think it was in his book on the Billy Goat Tavern that Kogan wrote, “There was a time when poets wrote for newspapers.” The line made me think of Norb.

A year later, Norb was back in Madison, and this time he wanted to meet at Nick’s on State Street, probably his favorite Madison haunt. I brought along my friend Bill Dixon, thinking they would hit it off, and they did. Bill told some stories about hanging with Hunter Thompson and Jim Harrison. Norb signed a couple of books for Bill.

A few years later, Norb sent along a new and expanded edition of one of his early books, “Meditations on a Small Lake,” with a warm inscription. I called Norb in Door County to tell him how much I enjoyed the book. It’s a mix of Blei’s own writing along with pieces about him written by others.

One of the profiles, which originally appeared in Milwaukee Magazine, was written by Madison’s George Vukelich. George noted that a mutual friend had warned him about Blei, “He’s different. It’s a like a mixture of Studs Terkel and Henry David Thoreau.” Of course, the two bonded immediately. Norb told me later he loved listening to Vukelich, who died in 1995, on Wisconsin Public Radio. “I miss him so much on the Wisconsin scene,” Norb said.

Then he laughed and told me about the upcoming launch party for “Meditations on a Small Lake.” Norb was talking to a friend, a Lutheran minister in Juddville, in Door County, and said, “The proper place to launch this book is a church.”

“Use mine,” the minister said.

“It’s perfect,” Norb told me. “Nobody knows where Juddville is.”

I think it was the summer of 2010 when I learned that Norb had a health problem and was unable to fulfill a speaking engagement at a writers’ conference in Green Lake. The organizers asked if I could fill in.

I was honored and humbled. I thought about the Harry Crews letter, and I remembered, too, that Milwaukee Journal book review and how I never could bring myself to come clean to Norb about it.

His death last month sparked numerous tributes, including a nice one from Kogan in the Chicago Tribune. A memorial service is planned for late June.

I found myself wishing I had told Norb about the short story review, and his pointed response. I’m pretty sure he would have laughed, and I think he would have forgiven my youthful stupidity. Well, maybe.– Doug Moe – May 13, 2013

5137d84d259e8.preview-620Doug Moe writes about Madison and the people who make it a unique place. His column runs Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays in the State Journal.

howard sherpe | across the fence: norbert blei – find me in my books

17 10 2013

People often ask me, “How do you come up with ideas for a story every week?” I begin this story as I begin almost every column I write – a blank sheet of yellow notebook paper, no outline, notes – nothing – just a head full of ideas, images, and memories. I’ll let the story tell itself, be its own story, find its own way, until the words and ideas begin to fill up a page. Eventually the words will begin to weave a story together. But the art of writing is in the rewriting – that’s where the story begins to take shape and find its voice.

Picasso said, “Not every painting needs to be a masterpiece.” The same is true with writing. Sometimes you hit a home run and sometimes you strike out. But, whether you’re playing a game, working, doing artwork, or writing, the main thing is to give 100% and try and do your best every time you take the field, or sit down with pen in hand and a blank piece of paper before you. Those are some things I learned from writer Norbert Blei.

We recently returned from three days spent in Door County, Wisconsin. I needed some quiet, down time after a very hectic couple of months. We’ve spent time there almost every year since our kids were young. This time it was different. There was no visit with Norbert Blei to talk about life and writing. Norb died on April 23, 2013, after a two-year fight against cancer. He was 77. He had become a friend and I considered him one of my writing mentors. Norb was not one to offer praise unless he meant it. That’s why it meant a lot to me that he liked my writing and even wrote reviews about my column and cover statements for my books.

Norbert Blei was certainly one of a kind. In 1969 he moved from urban Chicago to the country near Ellison Bay, near the tip of Door County. He lived beside a quiet, tree-lined road that led to a small lake, far from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, where he was born, raised, and was once an English teacher. He later worked as a reporter at the City News Bureau in Chicago with Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, who became his close friends.

After moving to Door County, he worked for over 40 years out of a converted chicken coop on his property that was nestled in the woods near his house. It was the perfect location for a writer – secluded and quiet. Norb authored 17 books of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and essays. He was also a painter, teacher, and journalist. For over 30 years he was writer-in-residence and taught a week-long writing course at The Clearing in Door County. He was a popular speaker and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Norb painted images with words that captured the beauty and character of Door County and the people who lived there. He was once asked if his writing was prose or poetry. He answered, “Does it matter?” I like to call his writing “poetic prose.” He wasn’t afraid to take a stand and lash out in print against those who he felt were destroying the unspoiled natural beauty and serenity of the countryside. We were both on the same side of the fence on that topic.

I’d like to share with you a sample of his writing from “Meditations On A Small Lake.” This is from Down To the Lake – Epilogue.

“He walks down the same road toward the same small lake as he has done for years…usually uncertain of the season, the mind busy shuffling images, thoughts, conversations, passages from books, poems… memories of other days walking the same road…the night before, yesterday morning, last week, years ago… his two small children pulling a wooden wagon filled with buckets of bright cherries picked from there across the road, where once an orchard grew … summers in a red rowboat drifting on the small lake, the bobber centered in ripples, the circles widening to infinity, to nothing but smooth water…fishing for bass and perch near the old boathouse, when the old boathouse and the dock were still there to lend a primitive spirit to all the lake touched along its shores …when the lake was mostly unknown, unmarked, hard to find, and quiet but for the wind singing over the water, inside the trees…when the lake took you by surprise in winter, snow-blinded you, held your footprints on ice, encompassed you in an immensity of white merging into the horizon … memories of small, ancient-like bonfires on a winter’s night, townspeople gathering to skate… times of pink prairie rose in bloom along the road in spring… autumns of wild apples and northern lights…

“It’s still early, still almost dark but growing lighter the closer he moves down to the lake… Nobody’s about. No one on the road. Nobody on the lake. No light in the few farmhouses he could see – remembering those early years he found himself alone among distant neighbors. He longs to get back to that. A time that occasionally visits him on days like this, early morning. Winter. The land the way it used to be.”

There it is… poetic prose, painting a picture with words. His writing still lives on… His tombstone says “Find me in my books.” — Howard Sherpe – October 02, 2013

Steve Grutzmacher | “It’s All Worth It” – Remembering Norbert Blei

12 07 2013

Norbert Blei

As I grow older and remain here on the Door Peninsula, one of the unpleasant realities I must face is the loss of friends and valued community members. Since the last issue of the Peninsula Pulse, our county has suffered three irreplaceable losses – none quite so significant to me, personally, as Norbert Blei.

Norb was a man full of contradictions and moods. He built and burned bridges with a rapidity that could be staggering. But Norb was, first and always, a writer.

My first meeting with him occurred in 1978. My parents had just opened Passtimes Books in the tiny cabin in front of the Toppelmans’ art gallery in Ephraim. Norb had just released a book of short stories titled The Hour of Sunshine Now – before the Door County books and Chicago books garnered him a measure of fame – and my father was hosting an autographing party on the patio in front of the store. Norb and I talked for a time, between customers, about books and writing, the first of what would become many such conversations over the years.

One year later, my college graduation present from my parents was a weeklong class with Norb at The Clearing, titled Zen and the Art of Writing. On Thursday morning of that week, Norb had us load into vans and took the entire class over to Toft Point for a few hours. The afternoon before we had been discussing Japanese Sumi paintings that consist of a single brushstroke across a white canvas and on that morning at Toft Point I chanced upon a dark grey rock with a single orange-red line running its length. When the opportunity afforded, I took the rock over to Norb and commented, simply, “Nature’s Sumi.” He took the rock from me, ran his fingers over the surface, then looked up and said, “If it were in my power, I would bestow a Ph.D. on you right now.” The rock from that day – “my Ph.D.” – sits on a shelf not far from where I write this column.

As the years passed, Norb and I, like many who knew him for an extended period I suspect, had our ups and downs. I was never a fan of his column in the Door Reminder, a viewpoint I shared with him on more than one occasion. Likewise, he was less than thrilled when I replaced him as the Door Reminder’s columnist. Still our love of the written word, and particularly the printed word, gave us ample material for long and engaging conversations.

Back in 2011 I was asked to write an appreciation of Norb for the Go! Guide. It was a task I struggled with, just as I have struggled to write these words. But some of what I wrote back then (with a slight update for time) seems appropriate now:

In the 44 years Norbert Blei has called Door County his home, he has been its faithful chronicler, its conscience, its critic, and its celebrator. In his attempts to capture the essence of the peninsula he has been a short story writer, a novelist, a poet, and painter, and – perhaps most importantly – a teacher.

He has been himself, he has been Coyote, he has been Salvador Prague, and many others. He has garnered a loyal following of admirers, and irritated others to the point of anger – but he has never been ignored or overlooked…

Like few writers of any time or any place, Blei has served a single muse: Door County. The land, the water and the people of this peninsula speak to him and he, in turn, has tried to faithfully record what he hears, what he feels and what he sees. His record of this place, in whatever form he captures it, has been shared with the multitude of us who have cared to listen as we, in turn, try to understand our abiding attraction to this tiny sliver of land – an attraction Blei defined in his book, Meditations on a Small Lake, in this way:

I guess what continues to fascinate me about this place – and I’m now speaking as a writer who lives here – is that after many books and all the years of living in it, I’m still not able to really define the place. Water defines some of it, but not all. The light here is different because of the water that surrounds everything, but that’s not all of it either.

There’s a spiritual aspect to the landscape. When you try to write what Door County is about, it’s about something as elusive as that: spirit.

That is the mystery that is all compelling.

With the due respect Door County’s community of visual artists deserve, and acknowledgement of the cliché involving pictures and words, no one artist has ever come closer to capturing the essence of Door County than Norbert Blei.

On a whim just now, I pulled my copy of The Hour of Sunshine Now off the shelf and read the inscription Norb wrote that day on the bookstore patio when he was a young 42 years of age and I was all of 20 years. And I was struck by how I, after all these words to memorialize the man, have been outdone by Norb’s three short sentences:

“To Stephen, I wish the hours of sunshine, the writer’s life for you. Tell it all, experience everything. It’s all worth it.” By Steve Grutzmacher, April 25, 2013

Herb Gould | Door County mourns author, Chicago transplant Norbert Blei

12 07 2013

Norbert Blei

Painting by Emmett Johns of Fish Creek, WI

They said goodbye to Norbert Blei the other day.

On a crisp day, friends and family gathered at the open-air Peninsula Players Theater for a memorial service that featured readings, tributes, songs, laughter and tears.

It was a touching and fitting tribute to Blei, a Chicago-born author who packed his Windy City roots when he moved to this vacation land in 1969.

“He wrote about the characters in this place, and then he became one,’’ said Michael Brecke, pastor of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Juddville.

“And where the hell is Juddville?’’ Blei once remarked wryly from behind his penetrating eyes and walrus-like mustache.

A literary descendant of Carl Sandburg, Ernest Hemingway, Nelson Algren, Studs Terkel and Mike Royko, Blei wrote 17 books of fiction, non-fiction, poetry and essays. He also taught and nurtured aspiring writers.

“Norb was about people, about life, about place, about story,’’ said Marianne Ritzer, his first assistant when he founded Cross + Roads Press, which was dedicated to publishing the works of fledgling writers.

Blei died on April 23 in Sister Bay, near his home in Ellison Bay, after a two-year battle with cancer. He was 77.

“I loved his words,’’ Door County musician and friend Julian Hagen said. “I loved his voice. I loved his mustache.’’

Born in Chicago, Blei grew up on the West Side and in Cicero. After graduating from Illinois State, he was a high school teacher in the Chicago area before he moved to Door County with his wife and two young children to continue his writing career.

In the ’90s, he briefly became a figure of controversy with his “Shut the Damn Door’’ campaign, an outrageous, anti-tourist, anti-development proposal. But his true passion was for all things literary, with a dash of painting on the side.

“He’d write cards and mail them to me,’’ his daughter, Bridget Buff, said during her tear-filled remembrance, “even though we lived in the same house.’’

His nickname was “Coyote,’’ and musician Pete Thelen celebrated Blei’s brashness with fresh lyrics to “Sweet Home Chicago’’ that included the chorus, “3 and 6 is 9, 9 and 9 is 18, he left the Windy City for the country scene. Hey, Coyote, don’t you want to go? Back to that same old place, Door County, his home?’’

From his adult Door County home, Blei did some of his best work writing about his childhood in Chicago, describing ethnic neighborhoods and their proud first-generation residents with a stark, true resonance. He wrote about their work, their dreams, their World War II struggles, their zest for life and their flaws.

And he did it with a spare, understated style that showed the influence of Hemingway, a fellow Chicago native.

“He was probably the most dedicated writer I ever saw,’’ said Albert DeGenova, a Chicago poet and publisher who first met Blei at the Clearing, a Door County retreat where Blei taught an annual workshop.

A close friend of Royko, Blei first met the late Chicago newspaperman at the old City News Bureau, where they worked the night shift together. The Pulitzer Prize winner often visited Blei in Door County, marveling at the gregarious coffee talk that would take place at Al Johnson’s, the well-known Swedish restaurant that was to Blei what Billy Goat’s was to Royko.

There’s even a goat connection. Tourists flock to Al Johnson’s to see goats eat the grass on the roof of the restaurant.

“I’m sure there’s a coffee table in heaven,’’ said Al’s daughter, Annika Johnson, who brought a goat with her onstage when she paid tribute to Blei. “And I know Norb will elbow his way in and take over.’’ — Herb Gould, July 8, 2013 9:30AM

David Pichaske | Ellis Press

9 07 2013
David Pichaske | Ellis Press

David Pichaske | Ellis Press

Dear Friends of Norbert Blei,

I am Norbert Blei’s publisher, recently returned from the memorial in Fish Creek to 40 cartons of the newly reprinted, revised, paperback edition of Door Way waiting for me on the loading dock. I certainly wish the printer had delivered them a week ago, so that I could have brought some with me to Door for the memorial, but they were not done in time. Sooner or later, I will get paperback Door Ways to Door.

Meanwhile, should you be interested, Door Way is back in print, paperback, $18 sticker price, $15 on prepaid orders to the publisher: Ellis Press, P.O. Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241. Or you can e-mail me an order, and I will send a bill with the books. Media mail shipping is free.

Norb and I did most of the work on this book back in 2010. We edited all chapters, and he added a new piece on “Going to Gordy’s for Milk.” He argued for another hard-bound book; I argued for a paperback to underbid the used copies of Door Bay already out there in the world. Finally he agreed to paper, as long as the book had (a) a cover stock that looks like watercolor paper, and (b) a new preface which he would write.

Unfortunately that preface never got written. When I visited Norb a week before he died, he asked me to go ahead with the reprint, paper was okay, but please add a “Note from the Publisher.” I went ahead with the reprint—distracted by the end of the school year and a long-planned trip to Mongolia—and now we have books.

Should you be interested, I also have (sometimes limited) supplies of the following Norbert Blei books at the publisher-direct prices indicated:

  • Door Way, cloth, signed and numbered 9 copies remaining from the first printing: $40 (they are a little brown around the trim edges, but they are autographed)
  • Door Way, third cloth printing, signed: $25 (7 copies, all in new condition)
  • Door Steps, cloth, unsigned: $20 (44 copies remain)
  • Chi Town, cloth, unsigned: $25 (I have 26 copies of this original printing of Chi Town)
  • The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog, cloth, unsigned, $15 (I have ample supplies of this book)
  • The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog, paper, unsigned, $10 (I have ample supplies of this book)
  • Meditations on a Small Lake, paper, first printing, $10 (I have 15 copies of this book and 3 copies of the reprinted edition)
  • Neighborhood cloth, $25 (I have 7 copies of the cloth edition left)
  • Neighborhood paperback, $18 (I have 21 copies of this book left)
  • Chronicles of a Rural Journalist, paper $15 (for some reason I find myself with 4 copies of this book)
  • Winter Book, cloth $15 (I have ample supplies of this book, and many are stored in Ellison Bay)
  • Paint Me a Picture/Make Me a Poem, $10 (I have 12 of these paperback books of Norb’s paste-pot poems and painting poems, but many are storied in Ellison Bay)
  • Adventures in an American’s Literature, paper $8 (I have ample supplies, and many copies of this book are stored in Ellison Bay) BUT
  • Adventures in an American’s Literature, special edition, 100 copies originally bound in water-color paper, which Norb water-colored individually and signed; each book is different, $50 (I have 8 of these books, and I am told that 3 more showed up on the floor of the coop, all in pretty bad shape)
  • The Second Novel, $15 (for some reason I find myself with 4 copies of this book, which December Press published in 1978).

For hard-core Blei fans, I also have 4 copies of the journal Studies in American Fiction (autumn 2004) which contains my article on Norbert Blei; 12 copies of Crossing Borders: American Literature and Other Artistic Media (printed in Poland) with my article “Kenneth Patchen, Norbert Blei: Literary Text as Graphic Icon”; and 6 copies of my book Rooted: Seven Midwest Writers of Place (University of Iowa Press, 2006) which contains a chapter on Blei. ($25 each, and I’ll autograph them for you)

Should you order a book which is sold out by the time I receive your order, I will either not cash the check or—in the case of a multiple-title order—refund you the price of the unavailable book. And I will e-mail you to this effect.

David Pichaske, publisher

Please Note: You can reach David Pichaske via the Ellis Press web page by clicking here…

Spoon River Press

David Pichaske

David Pichaske

was founded in 1976 at Western Illinois University to publish The Spoon River Quarterly and poetry chapbooks. Two years later the press, and the Quarterly, moved from Macomb to Peoria, Illinois, and incorporated as a State of Illinois not-for-profit corporation, assuming the name Spoon River Poetry Press to differentiate itself from another Spoon River Poetry Press, also operating out of Peoria. With growing financial assistance from the Illinois Arts Council (and at times from the National Endowment for the Arts), Spoon River Quarterly became a prefect-bound journal, and Spoon River Poetry Press began publishing perfect-bound paperbacks. Publication of hardbacks began with Norbert Blei’s Door Way (1981).

The imprint of Ellis Press was used to avoid the contradiction of a Poetry Press publishing prose work. In 1980 Spoon River Poetry Press absorbed Kickapoo Press, founded in Peoria in a failed attempt to attract Illinois Humanities Council funding, which had lived just long enough to publish two Jerry Klein titles. During the 1980s the combined Spoon River Poetry Press-Ellis Press-Kickapoo Press continued in Peoria, Illinois, as a house built on Illinois Arts Council support. The Press remains grateful for Council support from those years.

Reviews quoted in this catalog attest to the critical success of the separate presses. Meanwhile, the editor of Spoon River Poetry Press-Ellis Press had moved to Minnesota, founding there, with support from the Otto Bremer Foundation, a Minnesota NFP, Plains Press. Gradually both editor and presses solidified their positions in Minnesota. Spoon River could no longer in good conscience call itself an Illinois press or accept Illinois Arts Council funding, and the success, at the time, of Bookslinger and ILPA distributors suggested that literary presses, properly managed, could break the grant addiction and sustain themselves.The Spoon River Quarterly split from the Press and moved, with the Illinois incorporation, to Illinois State University.

In 1993 Spoon River Poetry Press, Ellis Press, and Kickapoo Press officially merged with Plains Press, absorbing in a few cases stock of titles from bankrupt or foreign publishers, and settling in Granite Falls, Minnesota.


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