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.





Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

7 07 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Painting by Emmett Johns of Fish Creek, WI

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Painting by Emmett Johns of Fish Creek, WI

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013

Painting by Emmett Johns of Fish Creek, WI

Norbert Blei Memorial | June 29, 2013





Robert M. Zoschke | Norbert Blei’s writing quarters

7 07 2013

Norbert Blei's writing quarters - before

click the image above to enlarge…

Robert M. Zoschke | Norbert Blei's writing quarters

Robert M. Zoschke | Norbert Blei's writing quarters

Robert M. Zoschke | Norbert Blei's writing quarters

Please find the three photos of Norbert Blei’s writing quarters after Robert M. Zoschke and Norb’s son Chris Blei finally got it cleaned up. Please see Chris’s note to me as well. As Norb’s health seriously declined the past few years he spent less and less time in his beloved writing coop. During his final winter he wasn’t there much at all and the place became neglected and penetrated badly by mice. Imagine all the bare floor space and the one clear wall all covered hip-deep with stuff, that had to be sifted through with gloves and masks on…that was the cleanup. We were able to unearth several issues of literary magazines and journals from the Sixties and Seventies that Norb’s poetry and fiction appeared in that we were not aware of, and we have been able to amass a bibliography including all the unpublished manuscripts found.

Perhaps it would not surprise your loyal readers to learn that Norb was a saver, he didn’t throw anything away. As we cleaned, we found out that this included Norb saving everything left behind by his father, including his father’s old “stag” books that pre-dated Playboy et cetera. So we had some laughs along the way, and beautiful moments when we found such things as all the crayon cards and poems his children had done for him when they were little. While we were staggered to find some of the classic First Edition books of Modern American Literature that were damaged into poor condition or not even capable of being salvaged, due to mice nesting and mice droppings and years of not being protected…it was heartwarming to find his children’s cards, poems, drawings, and schoolwork protected and saved in mint condition…and in the end, that is as poignant a tribute to Norb as one can witness. – Robert M. Zoschke

Both Bridget and I are forever grateful for all the help you have given us.
Thank you Rob.
Chris





Rick Kogan rediscovers Norbert Blei

29 06 2013
Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei | 1935 – 2013

The last time the name Norbert Blei appeared above a story in the Chicago Tribune was June 2, 1985. He wrote about the Clearing, a folk arts school founded in 1935 in Door County, Wis., by renowned landscape architect Jens Jensen when he was 75.

“Quite a legacy. Quite a man,” Blei wrote. Jensen “believed it was time for him to establish his ‘school of the soil’ down a woodland road toward the bluffs north of Ellison Bay. Essentially it would be a place for young students of landscape architecture to live close to nature, get a feel for it in their hands, discover its teachings and apply these discoveries to their own life and work — much as Jensen had done. Today, 50 years later, 34 years after his death at the Clearing at 91, the essential teachings of Jensen’s school remain the same: the harmony of man and nature.”

Blei moved to Door County in 1969, and it has been his home ever since, a place where he has lived and loved, painted, raised two kids, written, talked and taught, serving for many decades as one of the most inspirational instructors at the Clearing.

Blei was born here in 1935, an only child growing up on the West Side before moving to Cicero in grade school, and he has ever remained tied to this place. He was a high school English teacher for a bit and later a minion of the City News Bureau, that bygone training ground for journalists.

“I’m out of the newspaper tradition,” Blei once told me. “But the sort of stuff I do doesn’t seem to fit new demographics. There are so few publications reflecting the life of the city’s neighborhoods. They don’t seem to realize that the stories are still out there.”

Still true today, all of that, but for some years Blei was able to find homes in local magazines for his stories about the city. Eventually, though, the pages that once welcomed Blei’s nonfiction began to vanish, and he was increasingly compelled to use material he once would have put into what he charmingly called “pieces of journalism” into his fiction.

I have ever admired Blei and have talked with him many times over the years, when he would venture south to see old friends and re-explore his city.

He was always good for a story, and here is one of them.

“I was entertaining a Chicago editor in Door County not long ago,” he said. ”And after a lengthy evening he looked me in the eye and said, ‘OK, Norb, let’s be straight. The bottom line is money.’… How dead wrong. The bottom line is not to sell. I am a storyteller. I am called to the page.”

He has filled many of them, writing 17 books of nonfiction, fiction, poetry and essays. In 1994 he founded Cross+Roads Press, dedicated to the publication of first chapbooks by poets, artists, short story writers and novelists, thus empowering a generation of younger writers.

“Since my first class with Norbert in 1996, he has become a true mentor in my writing life,” says talented Chicago poet Albert DeGenova, who also is the publisher of After Hours Press. “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 … his stubborn adherence to ideals and perfection … these are what inspire his students, a special kind of student that only needs to stand near the fire to find personal ignition. And a powerful fire Norb is, though he never burns.

“And though a great teacher, Norb is first and foremost a writer. His books are alive with people, neighborhoods, the sights, sounds, smells of real living.”

If you would like to explore his work — the Internet makes almost all of them available with some digging — I would recommend starting with, in any order, three books that form what I consider his Chicago trilogy.

There is “Neighborhood,” about which the writer/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.”

There is “Chi Town,” which he called his “love letter to a city that has meant so much to me.” In it one can feel his passion for this place, whether writing about such familiar characters as Mike Royko, Studs Terkel, sportswriter Jerome Holtzman or less famous folks.

He devotes an entire chapter to Van Buren Street, asking, “But who sings of old Van Buren, groveling there like a lost hymn under the El tracks, holding the line of the Loop’s south end?” Well, he does, writing about the business and people and the feel of the street as it was a few decades ago, including a joint called the Rialto Tap, which had an unforgettable window sign that read, “WE SERVE ALCOHOLICS.”

And then there is “The Ghost of Sandburg’s Phizzog,” a sort of prose poem in honor of one of his greatest influences. Here he is echoing Sandburg’s affection for painted ladies: “Oh, she was young, oh she was blond, oh she was beautiful and oh, she could dance a Lake Michigan moon out of the water and onto her hair. Swaying in black velvet, she moved out of the river within me. Oh prairie night, oh, dark thunder, oh shimmering woman, I am one of your boys.”

Yes, Blei has written about his adopted home in such books as “Door Steps,” “Door to Door,” and “Door Way.” He used to write a newspaper column for the weekly Door County Reminder.

Since 1976 he has done most of his writing in a converted chicken coop near his Ellison Bay home. But when you read what he writes about Chicago, you’d swear he did it all while riding the “L.” – January 18, 2013|By Rick Kogan

This piece first ran in Printers Row Journal, delivered to Printers Row members with the Sunday Chicago Tribune and by digital edition via email.

Rick Kogan is a Tribune senior writer and columnist.








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