Warren Bluhm | Coyote at rest | Norbert Blei remembered as teacher, writer, advocate

2 11 2013
Norbert Blei's poetic and sometimes brutal prose defined Door County for more than 40 years. Blei, seen here in June 2010, died Tuesday at age 77. / Mike Brisson/For the Door County Advocate

Norbert Blei’s poetic and sometimes brutal prose defined Door County for more than 40 years. Blei, seen here in June 2010, died Tuesday at age 77. | Photo by Mike Brisson for the Door County Advocate

Coyote at rest | Norbert Blei remembered as teacher, writer, advocate

by Warren Bluhm Apr. 27, 2013

For years he howled; oh, how he howled.

He howled about the beauty of his adopted land and the special people who lived here. He painted images with words to capture that beauty and the character of Door County’s people. Most memorably, it seemed, he howled in anger and indignation when the beauty was endangered, and he howled with loss when those characters passed on.

Tuesday, Norbert Blei, who adopted the persona Coyote in one of the incarnations of his newspaper column, came to the end of his remarkable life as a result of complications from recent surgery. He was 77.

His writing style was an amalgam of the two places he called home, the rough and tumble streets of blue collar Chicago and the unspoiled natural beauty of Door County. After graduating from Illinois State University in 1956, he taught high school English and worked as a reporter at City News Bureau in the Windy City.

Then in 1969 he and his wife brought their two children to Ellison Bay, where Blei would write in a converted chicken coop for the next four decades — most notably collections of essays and character profiles like “Door Way” and “Chi-Town” and “Meditations on a Small Lake.” His work was published in numerous literary magazines and national newspapers — and also local publications like the Door Reminder, Door Voice and Door County Advocate — often sounding a warning about protecting the fragile Door County environment against development.

“He had a love/hate relationship with Door County since he first came here,” said Lars Johnson, whose father had opened Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant and Butik a decade before Blei moved north. “What attracted him to this place was the same as my dad, a place to escape city life, the hustle and bustle.”

He wrote about Isle View Road in a piece called “The Death of a Country Road”: “It’s a road that runs mostly straight, with a few gentle dips — that I’m sure our highway engineers will love to fill in and level. It’s a road that in summer, with trees in full leaf, you sort of entered a long cathedral of branches, of dancing light. You were not only on the road, but in it. It both carried you aloft and carried you quietly from side to side like the movement of the river.”

One of his most notorious columns in the Door Reminder was called “Shut the Damn Door,” a playful and biting satire that purported to be a master plan for the county. It called for converting the Bayview Bridge into an outdoor walking mall park, tearing up the paved roads and converting them to dirt and gravel, and encouraging vandalism of commercial road signs and plastic newspaper tubes.

The Reminder’s pages exploded with letters that both applauded Blei’s columns and condemned them, especially some of his more bawdy efforts. One of his sharper critics was Tom Felhofer, a longtime resident of the town of Union on the other end of the county.

“Blei’s career was proof that if you churn out enough words, and your moustache is long enough, you might be able to eke out a living by selling fairy tales to fellow Chicagoans who believe they are reading about Door County,” Felhofer said.

But Johnson said Blei’s status as a transplant helped define how special a place Door County is.

“As someone who came here from elsewhere, I think sometimes he understood Door County better than the locals,” Johnson said. “Because he was an outsider, he was wary of outsiders — especially developers. He was very fearful of where Door County was going.”

His lifetime of work in the coop netted him a Gordon MacQuarrie Award from the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences, Arts and Letters in 1997 for his “deep environmental ethic and journalistic integrity.” But his work as a teacher may be his most lasting influence. For four decades his writing workshops at The Clearing Folk School have been legendary.

“Writing has become one of the major areas of study at The Clearing, but it started with Norb,” executive director Michael Schneider said Friday. Blei taught his first Clearing workshop in 1973 and came back most years since then.

He was slated to be back this summer teaching one of the eight or nine writing workshops offered at the Ellison Bay school founded in 1935 by landscape architect Jens Jensen on 128 acres of forests and meadows. Several other Clearing teachers are Blei’s among past students.

The focus of the weeklong workshops was the writing life — and the focus of Blei the teacher was helping his students to understand the dedication and focus needed to be a true writer.

“He spent a lot of the week in one-on-one consultation before, during and after class,” Schneider said. “Nobody worked harder for his or her students.”

Several teachers at The Clearing have come back to Blei’s classes five, 10, 15 and even 25 years later, “almost like a reunion,” he said.

“He was dedicated to The Clearing, he was dedicated to his craft, he was dedicated to Door Couty,” Schneider said. “First and foremost, he was dedicated to his students.”

In 1994 Blei established the Cross+Roads Press to highlight and champion the work of new and local artists. He made the transition to the Internet, where his Poetry Dispatch and N.B. Coop News, among other sites, made his work available to an even broader audience.

In recent years he fought and beat cancer — he was cancer-free for the last three years of his life — and he continued to frequent Al Johnson’s and update his blogs. He sent an occasional email to his list with a photo he had snapped of a pristine Door County image, titled simply, “Good morning, Old Picker Shacks” or “Good afternoon, Shadows, Stone Fences, White Birch.”

He lost a great deal of weight in recent months and had stomach surgery in March, then contracted pneumonia which took a great deal of his remaining energy. At 8:18 a.m. Tuesday, he passed away at Scandia Village in Sister Bay.

“Blei was lucky in that he was able to spend most of his life doing exactly what he wanted,” Felhofer said. “And at the end of the day, isn’t that what it’s all about?”





Norbert Blei | Picture the poem

24 10 2013

norbert blei | picture the poem

Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem

PAINT ME A PICTURE/MAKE ME A POEM
NORBERT BLEI
with an introduction by
Paul Schroeder University of Maine, Orono
SPOON RIVER POETRY PRESS 1987

This book is published in part with funds provided by the Illinois Arts Council, a state organization, and by the National Endowment for the Arts. Our thanks.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following publications where some of these poems, pieces, and paintings originally appeared: Kayak, Wormwood; Analecta; The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle; Wisconsin Review; Creative Writing (Laidlaw/Doubleday); Beowulf to Beatles and Beyond (Macmillan); Ace Space Atlas (Ace Space Co.); The Watercolored Word (Quixote Press); The Second Novel (December Press); Adventures in an American’s Literature (Ellis Press); and Door to Door (Ellis Press). “Picture the Poem” (under a different title) originally appeared m Midwest Magazine of the Chicago Sun-Times, August 8, 1971; “Me and My Water-colors” appeared originally in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, December 12, 1971; “Poems in the Wind” originally appeared in Insight Magazine of the Milwaukee Journal.

Some of the paintings in this book are privately owned; some are in the hands of the writer for keeps; other poems, paintings, art created solely for the vision of this book have no existence but on these pages.

NOTE: Please address all inquiries regarding acquisition of a Blei water-color to the author himself: Norbert Blei, Ellison Bay, Wisconsin 54210.

Paint Me a Picture/Make Me a Poem copyright (C) 1987 by Norbert Blei. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any manner, including photocopy, without written permission of the author (see address above) except in the case of reviews and articles.

Published by Spoon River Poetry Press, David Pichaske, editor; P. O. Box 1443;Peoria, Illinois 61655. Printed by Rodine the Printer, Peoria, Illinois and M & D Printing, Henry, Illinois. ISBN: 0-933180-97-7

Please listen to Norbert Blei reading Picture the Poem by clicking here…

Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem





Gregg Cebrzynski on Norbert Blei

17 10 2013

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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

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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

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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





warren bluhm | whither the coop?

22 09 2013

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The converted chicken coop where Norbert G. Blei worked needs a new home, and the search is turning out to be more complicated than first believed.

The board of directors of The Clearing, the retreat center and artists’ school founded by landscape architect Jens Jensen in Ellison Bay, earlier this month turned down an offer to have the coop moved onto the 130-acre property.

Blei, who died April 23 at age 77, played a pivotal role in The Clearing’s history: A 1985 article he wrote for the Chicago Tribune is credited with bringing new attention and life to the “school of the soil,” then struggling during its 50th year. For decades he was a frequent and popular teacher of writing at The Clearing.

The coop, nestled into the woods behind Blei’s rustic home on Europe Lake Road, served as his workplace for more than 40 years. Filled with books stacked in piles and shelves, since 1978 it was where most of his 17 books, blogs and publishing activity originated. The family decided not to include it in the sale of the property, which is listed for $169,000.

“As a historical building, it has to be preserved,” said Christopher Blei, the writer’s son. Although not listed on any formal historic register, the iconic structure was included in the 1996 “Cultural Map of Wisconsin: A Cartographic Portrait of the State” created by Woodward, Ostergren, Brouwer, Hoelscher and Hane.

Friend and Clearing board member Tim Stone championed the idea of moving the coop there. He formed a committee and developed plans and cost estimates for the move.

“It sounded like a perfect place,” Christopher Blei said this week. “The artists got involved, so we were very surprised; we hadn’t thought it would be turned down.”

Carolyn Kimbell, president of The Clearing board, said the group slowly came to the realization that the idea was not as good a fit as first believed.

“At first we were really excited, thinking ‘this is so cool,’” Kimbell said. “But then we started thinking about where we would put it.”

If the structure were moved onto the secluded Clearing campus, it would be closed to the public Monday through Friday, she said.

“We envisioned people driving up from Chicago and wanting to see it, only to be turned away,” Kimbell said. “If we put it up by the Jens Jensen Center, then it’s not as accessible to the students.”

Jude Genereaux, former Door County administrator and longtime partner of Blei, said the decision may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.

“The more I think about it, the more I think that wouldn’t be where he’d want it to go,” Genereaux said. “It shouldn’t be a museum piece … If anything, he’d probably approve it becoming a working ‘retreat’ cove where writers could spend a little time in contemplation. I think that would make Norb happiest.”

One promising alternative would be the new Write On, Door County writing center being developed on a 40-acre tract in Juddville and championed by Anne Emerson of Edgewood Orchard Galleries, where a reception was held after Blei’s memorial service June 29.

“Our focus at the time was on other things,” Genereaux said. “We’ve had no formal thoughts or discussion about it.”

Emerson said she did not want to be presumptuous and has not talked with the family since the Clearing board made its decision, but she added that “we’d be delighted” to serve as the coop’s home.

“Norb and I had talked about this whole project, and he was enthusiastic about it,” she said.

The nonprofit Write On, Door County’s dream of a writing center began taking shape after donors provided the land of woods and meadows, along with a four-bedroom house, just east of Wisconsin 42 on both sides of Juddville Road.

“We hope to have magical spots — places where people can write or read or just be quiet,” Emerson said. “There would be small structures, or they don’t even have to be structures. But the coop would be a perfect fit.”

Other possibilities that have been floated are to move the coop to a spot on Washington Island, where Blei was active in the arts community especially in his later years; to place it in a historical center like the Corner of the Past in Sister Bay or Crossroads at Big Creek in Sturgeon Bay; or even to find a way to leave the entire Blei property intact.

“It would be nice if they could just keep that little place as is,” Kimbell said. “That is SO Norb Blei. We loved Norb, we loved the idea of having it, and we really want to see it preserved.”

The Clearing’s decision caught the family off guard, so a “plan B” has not yet been formed. Christopher Blei reacted positively to all possible options.

“At this point we are open to anything,” he said. “Hopefully in the weeks ahead, a plan can be in place.”

Genereaux was also optimistic.

“I think we’ll come up with the right place,” she said.

by Warren Bluhm

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