August, 31 between 10 and 10:30 am via WGN Radio by clicking here please…
August, 31 between 10 and 10:30 am via WGN Radio by clicking here please…
Last Tuesday, July 22, 2014, Rob Zoschke and David Pichaske met in Ellison bay with two librarians from the University of Wisconsin Library—Susan Barribeau and Robin Rider—to inventory Norbert Blei’s papers in storage there.
As a result of that meeting, twenty-six boxes of manuscripts, letters, files, books and other published Blei stories are now tucked safely in the special collections section of the library in Madison, there to become the Norbert Blei Collection. Norb Blei is now a part of the University of Wisconsin! The 26 boxes of material—most of which had been inventoried by Pichaske last summer—will be assessed, re-inventoried, and refoldered. The process will take some time, but eventually the archives will be open to the general public and the library will provide a “finding tool” for what it considers “a very special acquisition.” Some materials may be available on-line.
Meanwhile, Pichaske is hard at work inventorying the electronic files stored on Blei’s computer, which will also become part of the Madison collection. While some items seem incomplete or gone missing, Pichaske has found digital files containing substantial portions of some book-length projects on which Blei had been working back in the 1990s and early twenty-first century.
On the wall of Vesecky’s Bakery in Berwyn there’s a framed Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine piece from 1971, by the writer and poet Norbert Blei, who grew up in this area (and died last year in Door County):
There are almost as many bakeries along Cermak Road in Cicero and Berwyn as savings and loans… Nobody knows what it is between Bohemians and their bakery. They just never seem to get enough of it… No matter how many housky, or kolacky, or coffeecakes are on the table Saturday morning, someone in the family will usually be told, “Stop at Vesecky’s (or Fingerhut’s or Vales’ or Stetina’s or Minarik’s) for some Bohemian rye… maybe a poppyseed Babovka, too.”
Hardly a word of it remains the case 40 years later. Berwyn and Cicero are increasingly Mexican, all those other bakeries are gone, and the association between savings and loans and Bohemians (aka Czechs and Hungarians) is incomprehensible today. (Bohemians, despite their association with careless Parisian artists thanks to a certain opera, were notoriously the tightest bank customers in Chicago, impossible to sell credit cards or installment loans to; as an officer at the late Talman Federal Savings and Loan once told me, the Bohemian version of buying on time was “If you want a refrigerator, you save for ten years until you have the money to buy it.”)
And yet Vesecky’s Bakery survives. Old Man Vesecky, James Sr., 62 when Blei wrote about him, passed away in 2005 at 97, and the frantic overnight baking scene Blei describes had surely calmed down long before. Today it’s a quiet place, a couple of young female sales assistants serving the customers. But someone who knows the place’s heritage must still be in the back, cranking out both Czech apple srudl with its flat crust:
Surprisingly, it was the simplest thing, houska, that I think proved the most satisfying in the end. It’s basically raisin bread, but with brandy-soaked raisins, I think, and a dough made with milk and egg (close to challah or a less rich brioche). Simple, as befits a people who watched a buck like it was Dillinger planning an escape, yet completely satisfying. As long as you can swing by Vesecky’s for that, Norbert Blei’s world isn’t completely gone.
Norbert Blei is whispering in my ear.
“Don’t forget to say that it all begins with poetry.”
“Make sure they understand the power of the small moment.”
“We breathe telling tales.”
I am preparing to teach The Norbert Blei Writing Workshop at The Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay, Wisc. This is the second year that I will lead the class without Norb. Of course, I have a partner in teaching the class (just as Norb always had his “assistant” which over the years became “co-teacher”) and I couldn’t do it without her. We are both long-time Norbert Blei students and truly co-teachers. Last June, when many of us were still hurting from the loss of Norbert in April, I tried to incorporate as much of Norb into my teaching as I could. His presence was so strong within the class and at The Clearing. Of course, I cannot be Norb. There is only one Norbert Blei. I will teach the class as Albert DeGenova. Norb would have insisted on that.
Yet, Norbert continues to whisper in my ear…and he keeps “sending” me things to read, quotes from Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Basho, Kerouac.
“Write what is true.”
“Write what you know.”
“Your way is the only way”
As with any teacher and student, I know I have absorbed much of Norb’s direction and style. Both of us who teach the class cannot deny his influence. But just as any great maestro brings the wisdom of his own life and learning to his student, the student becomes their own artist. We have become the writers we are, and the teachers we are, because of Norbert’s influence on the people that we are. This is the way.
And in this way we keep the legacy of Norbert Blei alive. Here in the Poetry Dispatch, at The Clearing, as Norbert’s books continue to sell, but most importantly in our own writing. His voice keeps whispering in all of our ears. Norb recognized the power of the internet and embraced it. Simply search Norbert Blei’s name and you will find his legacy. Or join us at The Clearing for the annual workshop, all writers are welcome.
To some this may be old news now, but it bears repeating. Nearly two years prior to his death in 2013, Norbert invited some of his long-time students (all accomplished writers themselves) to contribute essays to a book he intended to write about his years as a teacher at The Clearing. The book would be his personal perspective on teaching, students and the importance of place, specifically The Clearing.
The Professor’s Quarters is a collection of those student essays. It is a book about Love: the love of a teacher, a place and the writing life.
The book is published by After Hours Press through the financial support of enthusiastic sponsors and will be donated to The Clearing for sale in the bookstore, beginning June 22, 2014. All profits from the sale of the book are dedicated for use as a scholarship fund for the continuing Norbert Blei Writing Workshop week at The Clearing.
For those readers of Norbert Blei’s books, articles and blogs, The Professor’s Quarters offers insights to the man and his teaching style, but also the place he found so important in his own life. Order at: http://goo.gl/v2UTje
ELLISON BAY, WI (June 7, 2014) – The Clearing Folk School is where Norbert Blei taught a week long writing workshop every summer for nearly 45 years. The school, built by land architect Jens Jensen, is situated atop one of the most beautiful bluffs in Door County. This is Norb Blei’s Door County, the subject of much of his writing.
Nearly two years prior to his death in 2013, Norbert invited some of his long-time students (all accomplished writers themselves) to contribute essays to a book he intended to write about his years as a teacher at The Clearing. The book would be his personal perspective on teaching, students and the importance of place, specifically The Clearing.
The Professor’s Quarters is a collection of those student essays, compiled and edited by long-time Blei students and assistants Al DeGenova, Alice D’Alessio, Susan O’Leary and Jude Genereaux. This is a book about Love: the love of a teacher, a place and the writing life.
The book has been published at the expense of enthusiastic sponsors and will be donated to The Clearing for sale in the school’s on-site bookstore, beginning June 22, 2014. All profits from the sale of the book are dedicated for use as a scholarship fund for the continuing Norb Blei week at The Clearing.
Nearly two years prior to his death in 2013, faithful friend and supporter of After Hours, Norbert Blei invited some of his long-time students, all accomplished writers themselves, to contribute essays to a book he intended to write about his years as a teacher at The Clearing Folk School in Door County, Wisconsin. Unfortunately, time ran out before his vision was taken to fruition.
In the winter of 2013-14,the essays were gathered and compiled by Alice D’Alessio, Albert DeGenova, Jude Genereaux and Susan O’Leary and (in the spirit Norb foresaw)are now being published by After Hours Press as the new book entitled The Professor’s Quarters.
This collection stands as testimony to The Clearing, to Norb as Teacher, and to his writer-students. The book will be published this spring with profits going to the continuing “Scholarship Fund” for the Norbert Blei Week at The Clearing.
If you are interested in buying this book, please click here…
Though much of his writing — gritty, urban and urbane, filled with humanity and lively characters — ranks with the best ever published about Chicago, Norbert Blei spent the last four decades in the relative peace and calm of Door County, Wisconsin, teaching, painting and, as if he could have ever stopped, writing.
He once defined his life by saying, “I am a storyteller. I am called to the page.”
Mr. Blei, 77, died Tuesday, April 23, at Scandia Village, a rehabilitation facility in Sister Bay, Wis. He had been battling cancer for more than two years.
“Norb was first and foremost a writer,” said Mr. Blei’s former student and longtime friend Albert DeGenova, a poet and publisher of Oak Park-based After Hours Press. “His books are alive with people, neighborhoods, the sights, sounds, smells of real living.”
Norbert George Blei was born in Chicago in 1935, the only child of Emily and George Blei, and grew up on the West Side before moving to Cicero in grade school.
After graduating from Illinois State University in 1956 with a degree in English, he taught that subject in high school before going to work for the City News Bureau, that bygone training ground for journalists.
He soon fashioned a successful nonfiction freelance career here but after a few years the local magazines that were a welcoming home to his stories about the city began to vanish. He was increasingly compelled to use material he once would have put into what he charmingly called “pieces of journalism” for his efforts in fiction.
Without bitterness or rancor but rather with a sense of adventure, he and his then-wife and two young children moved to Ellison Bay in 1968, where he lived his passion and joy as a writer, teacher and artist.
He became the “writer in residence” at The Clearing Folk School, a position he held for 40 years; edited a Door County arts newspaper and was the editor and publisher of CROSS+ROADS PRESS, which was devoted to emerging and accomplished poets, short story writers, essayists, novelists, artists and photographers.
Mr. Blei wrote 17 books, including those that many refer to as his Chicago trilogy: “Neighborhood,” “Chi Town” and “The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog.”
Of “Neighborhood,” the writer and critic Laurie Levy wrote in the Tribune: “There is the soul of a poet as well as a journalist at large in these pages, recalling for the less articulate those lost moments we try so hard to remember.”
Mr. Blei called “Chi Town” his “love letter to a city that has meant so much to me.” In it, one can feel his passion for this place as he writes about familiar characters like Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, as well less famous folks.
“The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog” is a sort of prose poem in honor of one of his greatest influences.
Mr. Blei also gave his adopted home in Wisconsin its due in such books as “Door Steps,” “Door to Door” and “Door Way.”
His stories appeared in The New Yorker, Chicago Magazine, Utne Reader, Tri-Quarterly, the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. He was a popular speaker and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio.
He was the recipient of many awards, including the Gordon MacQuarrie Award from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters; Pushcart Press Award in fiction; and the Bradley Major Achievement Award from the Council of Wisconsin Writers.
He also inspired a couple generations of writers, both would-be and published.
“Since my first class in 1996, he has become a true mentor in my writing life,” DeGenova told the Tribune early this year. “His passion for the literary subjects he chooses to teach, his dedication to the writing life, to the purity of the word, to the flow of feeling to thought to words on the page … A powerful fire Norb (was) …”
Mr. Blei is survived by his longtime partner, Jude Genereaux; his former wife, Barbara Blei; a son, Christopher; a daughter, Bridget Buff; and three grandchildren.
A memorial service is being planned.
Rick Kogan, April 30, 2013| Chicago Tribune