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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norbert blei | the poetry of persona and the divided self

6 02 2009

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Poetry Dispatch No. 269 | February 6, 2009

The Poetry of Persona and the Divided Self
by
Norbert Blei

Not every poet finds a reason or need to develop a voice within a voice, another ‘persona’ if you will, but for sometime a number of poets (Americans in particular) have been getting outside/inside themselves in a way writers of fiction create `characters’ or characters to voice other levels of meaning.

CAUTION: It may seem an easy thing to do. But it’s not something you can play around with like: “I think today I’ll write a sonnet” ten consider yourself Shakespeare. Rather…it’s a voice that may (or may not) call you when you are ready to listen—and record. One way or another, life itself propels you in this direction. Which is always the way of authentic writing. When it’s bullshit, it’s bullshit. When it’s true, it’s true.

The late John Berryman, author of an American classic, THE DREAM SONGS, is one of these poets who introduces the character of Henry in his work. A likeable guy. So much so that the reader begins to feel comfortable in the possibility that Berryman and Henry are one or share the same sensibility which the recorded moment requires—sad, sensitive, self-indulgent, self-disparaging, confessional roustabouts with something unsettling to say about life, art, the American dream:

Books drugs razor whisky shirts
Henry lies ready for his Eastern tour,
swollen ankles, one hand,
air reservations. Friends at the end of the hurts,
a winter mind resigned: literature
must spread, you understand,

–from “Dream Song 169” of THE DREAM SONGS, Farra, Strauss, Giroux

berrymanHenry = Berryman? Some resemblance, perhaps. Though Berryman himself states: “The poem, then, whatever its wide cast of characters, is essentially about an imaginary character (not the poet, not me) named Henry, a white-American in early middle age sometimes in black face, who has suffered an irreversible loss and talks about himself sometimes in the first person, sometimes in the third, sometimes even in the second; he has a friend, never named, who addresses him as Mr. Bones and variants thereof. Requiescat in pace.”

Paul Zimmer, (FAMILY REUNION: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS, THE ZIMMER POEMS, etc. University of Pittsburg Press) is an immensely entertaining yet serious poet with his own special take on an alter ego who looks at the real world through the small-town eyes of a character named Zimmer. The titles alone pull you immediately into his world: “Zimmer and the Ghost”, “Zimmer Remembering Wanda”, “Zimmer Imagines Heaven”, “Zimmer’s Last Gig”, “Zimmer Is Icumen In”…

ZIMMER’S HEAD THUDDING AGAINST THE BLACKBOARD

At the blackboard I had missed
Five number problems in a row,
And was about to foul a sixth,
When the old, exasperated nun
Began to pound my head against
My six mistakes. When I cried,
She threw me back into my seat,
Where I hid my head and swore
That very day I’d be a poet,
And curse her yellow teeth with this.

My friend, Illinois poet of the people and the prairie, Dave Etter, has to date never developed a whole book of poems to a character of his named Doreen (shades of an old high school sweetheart, word has it) but she pops up occasionally in his work, especially in a book of prose poems, HOME STATE (Spoon River Poetry Press).

PAJAMAS

Doreen always sleeps in a pajama top—that’s all. Winter or summer, just a pajama top. Who wears the bottoms? How would I know? Nobody, I guess. She probably uses them for dust rags, or maybe she gives them away to some girl who sleeps only in pajama bottoms. The way Doreen squirms and kicks her legs in bed, I can understand very well why she opts for tops over bottoms. What do I wear between the sheets? Well, it’s none of your business, but if you must know, I wear neither pajama tops or pajama bottoms. You wouldn’t either if you slept with Doreen.

On the international scene, one poet in particular of the post-modernist school, Zbigniew Herbert of Poland, brings a thoughtful character to light, Mr. Cogito, who seems to carry the whole sad history of Eastern Europe on his shoulders as he ponders the state of our times.

MR COGITO THINKS OF RETURNING TO THE CITY WHERE HE WAS BORN

If I went back there
probably I wouldn’t find
even shadow from my house
nor the trees of childhood
nor the cross with n iron plate
the bench where I whispered incantations
chestnuts and blood
not a single thing that is ours…
…while all around
piles of ash are growing
up to my shoulders
up to my mouth

from MR. COGITO, The Ecco Press

Back in the rural Midwest, over in Minnesota, the poet Leo Dangel sometimes sees the world through Old Man Brunner’s magnificent, munificent eyes:

OLD MAN BRUNNER SITS ON HIS PORCH

Old Man Brunner never cuts his weeds.
Right up to the house,
sunflowers and fire weeds
grow tough and hard as small trees.
In the summer evening, Old Man Brunner
sits and surveys his jungle,
his sleeves rolled up,
his cracked shoes beside him.
Old man Brunner’s feet are white,
white as angel feet.
He hold one white foot in his brown hand
and cuts his toenails
with a tin shears.

-from OLD MAN BRUNNER COUNTRY, Spoon River Poetry Press

It is almost impossible to read any of the many collections of the late Bukowski’s (Charles) poems, stories and novels and not come up with a street-wise character, part buffoon, part philosopher, part loser, part poet…semi-serious slant on himself, Bukowski likes to call Chinaski:

THE SOULLESS SELF

I met the movie star, he’s playing Chinaski
in my new movie, I pout my hand on his shoulder: “you’re
all right, Ben,” I tell him.
then the famous Italian director puts his leg up on
the table: “now I’ll drink with you Chinaski,” he says.
(that’s the way he always drinks, I’m told.)
“o.k.,” I say and I put my leg up on the table.
I drain my glass, he fills it again, I drain it
Again, he fills it again.

they know I’m a real guy then.

-from, OPEN ALL NIGHT, Black Sparrow Press

Tom Montag, one of our best Wisconsin poets did a book, Ben Zen THE OX OF PARADOX with my press, (Cross+Roads Press) in l999 which is a wonder to read, behold. I won’t say It’s all Zen; I won’t say it isn’t Zen. I will say that for any reader with the slightest interest in the subject, not to mention a love of poetry—Tom Montag speaks to you in this book—through the simple presence of a wise old farmer, who sounds a lot like a Zen monk, speaking in koans:

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Engineers are like poets,
Ben says, only backwards.

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If you don’t have
Truth in your heart

You won’t know
What you have.


Anything will fit, Ben says.
You just have to learn to wear it.

Oh to a be the junkman, Ben says.
To have everything no one wants.

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Much as I’ve been,
Ben says,
I’ve never been enough.

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There do not seem to be as many women writing the poetry of persona as men, though one in particular, Lyn Lifshin, whom I have read for more than twenty years in hundreds of little magazines, has written “more than a thousand” (she tells me) “Madonna” poem (in addition to her regular poetry) and is still writing them. Her “Madonna” is—ribald, rambunctious, erotic, excessive, demanding, demeaning, ironic, iconic, horny, heady, outspoken, outrageous…born to deliver the double whammy. Her latest books are: COLD COMFORT and BEFORE IT’S LIGHT (Black Sparrow Press). Collections of her Madonna poems, are hard to find. Check out: www.lynlifshin.com I leave you in her (“Madonna’s”), warm, anxious hands:

MADONNA OF THE MESSY HOUSE

around her bed:
spoons like lovers
licked and left

LEFTOVER MADONNA

makes you feel
good twice

WOK MADONNA

gets you going
fast, leaves
you in your
own juices

INDIAN SUMMER MADONNA

unexpectedly hot
but she doesn’t stay

MADONNA OF THE SEVEN DWARFS

is into feminism
likes to tower over men
thinks of them all as dopey

POETRY SUCKS MADONNA

takes what she
can’t use
and uses it
so it won’t
use her

from Wormwood Reviews, #’s 82, 87, 92, 117

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For a number of years now a local character by the name of Olaf has been knocking on my door, pulling up a chair here in the coop, drinking all my brandy, telling me some of the damnedest stories. But I’ll save him for another time.








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