Norbert Blei Retrospective

2 11 2013

This is a compilation of three readings by Norb Blei, who passed away in 2013. He was an important writer of and in Door County, Wisconsin. Included are excerpts from his performances at Miller Art Gallery on 03-13-11 as part of a Frances May celebration, and two Christmas shows at Door Community Auditorium on 12-23-09 and 12-23-10.





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?”





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.





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





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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