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.

norbert blei | readings by norbert blei & music by jim spector

12 05 2010

Readings by Norb Blei & Music by Jim Spector

Tracklist: Door in Winter: December Entries: 1. 29th Going for Milk 2. 30th A Remberance of Red 3. 31th The White Path 4. Christmas Eve in Door

All selections from DOOR STEPS © 1996 ELLIS PRESS, P.O. Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241

The Quiet Time: Door County in Winter. Readings from Norb Blei’s DOOR STEPS (The Days, The Seasons) Original music for guitar by Jim Spector.

In five seasonal essays and a daybook of 365 entries, Norbert Blei records the passing of days and seasons in Door County, in his life, in our lives.

A delicate balance between the rugged Door terrain and the author’s inner landscape, the entries of DOOR STEPS (the second book in Blei’s Door County trilogy, which also includes DOOR WAY and DOOR TO DOOR) range from objective, almost naturalistic observations to pure poetry.

Jim Spector is best known for his passionate solo flamenco recordings and his inspired concert performances. He has arranged, composed and recorded the soundtracks to award-winning documentary films and music from his compact disc recording “Flamenco Passions” (DCV002, Door Couniy Voices) has been featured on American Airlines. In this collaboration with Norbert Blei, the text provided the images to inspire a musical setting for sensitive, evocative readings.

Produced by Door County Voices, a division of Open Door Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 517, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235. Readings performed by Norbert Blei. Original music composed and recorded by Jim Spector. Recorded at Sound Fanners, Sturgeon Bay, WI. Produced by Mark Thiede. Executive Producer: Cy Rosenthal. Photography by Dan Hatton.

Much more on Norbert Blei can be found on his web sites: Norbert Blei & Basho’s Road & N.B. Coop News

Editors note: This recording was originally released as cassette and is not longer available. Norbert Blei was so kind to send me one of the very last un-played tapes. Digitalized as mp3 in 320kps | 44100hz | Stereo quality by Markus Mayer in Vienna, Austria.

If you are interested in buying this digitalized tape, please click here…

norbert blei | down to the lake

26 12 2008


NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.164 | December 26, 2008

Christmas to New Year (2009)
‘Memoir’ Dispatches, #3

Editor’s Note: This is the third, end-of-the-year/holiday, offering in words to date as I consider the various interpretations of December, winter, Christmas, the coming year. Please check the first, “Carol Ordal”, now archived with the original postcard mentioned in the piece, at www.poetrydispatch.wordpress.com, and the second posting, a winter haiku by Imakito Oku at www.bashosroad.outlawpoetry.com . It’s my hope to send a daily posting in this spirit till (and including) January 1, 2009. Please read, enjoy—and send it around, if you feel so inclined. — Norbert Blei.

P.S. The first jpeg (painted by Charles ‘Chick’ Peterson) remains pretty true-to-form at this winter moment in Door(though deeper in snow); the second is an audio cassette cover ‘a voice’ in winter; the third, the short, complete Epilogue from the book from which the following excerpt was taken



Down to the Lake


He steps into another day much as any other day, looking for something … something to orient himself, re-adjust his presence…something to make the day new, different…something to retrieve out there, bring back to the table. Whatever it is that lies in wait, comes alive inside his own musings, ultimately turns him back on the same path, anxious to begin again.

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…that time the snowy owl sat for days in the maple there on the way down to the lake.…times of pink prairie rose in bloom along the road in spring… autumns of wild apples and northern lights…the winter his old neighbor crawled through the parlor window, snow drifted so heavily against the door…

doorHe walks in a diminishing darkness toward that moment night recedes behind him, and the slightest glimmer of first light begins spreading over the east, over the road, the woods, the small lake waiting ahead. He has come to love this moment when the night withdraws the darkest mysteries, uncovering the landscapes bare truths—dirt roads, telephone lines, chimney smoke, a black dog watching him from a distance, white birch trees, an entanglement of branches, evergreens, fallen trees…the long history of stone fences.

A day of no particular date but a sense of winter in retreat, the earth turning over on its back…maple sap running. A wake-up feeling of cold upon his face, around his neck, down his shoulders …a comforting cold, flipping his collar up, catching a slap of wind in the eye, loosening a trickle of cold-warm tears upon the cheeks…a tickling sensation of gentle flakes of snow falling invisibly, though the old road appears newer, whiter.

The black dog, catching up with him, running ahead, stopping, turning to gaze at the man, running forward in a frenzy again…the joyousness of dumb animal life, constant curiosity and playfulness, plummeting toward whatever lies ahead, while the man lumbers in the animal’s wake…waiting for the mind to empty…hands curled warmly inside black mittens, snow flakes tickling his face, the wind in play in the tips of the tall pines just ahead, swaying so slightly. He stops to watch the wind in the trees, the towering height of pines and hardwoods on both sides of the road, leading down to the lake–the density and darkness of the woods beyond and within …nowhere he cared to tread. He might never find his way back again.

He comes to the small crest in the road he knows so well…the ‘hill’ where his children went sledding in winter…the hill from which he catches a first glimpse of the small lake…so easy to saunter down in his walk toward the water. More breathtaking to negotiate on his way back.

His mind, in every direction this morning …returning to that field of tall pine he passed moments ago…once an open farmland, stone-picked, then gone to weed—fox dens, milkweed, songbirds, mushrooms, wild asparagus. Years later, pine seedlings were planted by the county forester…hundreds of finger-length pines tucked in place, row upon row, up and down the empty field from the road to his old neighbor’s house in the far distance. How long ago was that? He can’t remember. It doesn’t matter. Long enough for those seedlings to reach the height of thirty feet or more. Nobody now cares about the open field turned to thick pine, the stone fence that ran forever down the property line, why the old neighbor lived so far in from the road you could barley see light in his windows at night …the sweet strawberries he grew and gave away, the flower garden of huge poppies, orange and pink, he tended in memory of his wife, the birdhouses he made from hollow cedar logs raised on poles high in the air, or nailed to the sides of the barn…how he died one night in his rocking chair a long time ago, looking out the front window, facing the first snowfall upon the new pine seedlings.

It’s still early, still almost dark but growing lighter the closer he moves down to the lake. Another gray-on-white day. Nobody’s about. No one on the road. Nobody on the lake. No light in the few farmhouses he could see. Hardly anyone living here this time of the year— 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.

He approaches the small lake…that opening at the end of the road, an expanse harboring drifts of snow, wind-swept clearings of pure ice…not a sound but his own breathing.

He takes a tentative first step out, into it all…breaking through the snow crust…punching in footsteps…heading toward the center, the first small clearing, an island of ice.

He hears the wind come up from behind him. Sees morning light, a lighter shade of gray, reaching up into the trees across the white lake. Watercolor gray, a Payne’s Gray an artist might spread in a wet wash…to catch it, hold it…cold, warm… make it all come alive in that moment of absolute solemn, moving light.

If he shuts out everything inside, if he concentrates on only the stillness, he can hear the sound of snow falling. His blood coursing.

He is inside a snow dome. Turned upside down. Under the ice, fish frozen in place, circle the darkness in wonder of water. Above, snow filters down upon the solitary man, alive in a glass ball…vanished upon a small lake.

The center of white. Where the only road leads.

He looks to the heavens, feels the gentlest flakes bless his forehead, nose, eyes… opens his mouth, childlike, in communion, tasting the sacred quiet.

He stays that way a long time…standing on ice… snow coming to an end…lighter, warmer…isolation, loneliness, love. Just being there.

The walk back would come soon enough…turning, retracing his path.

The walk back would be the same.

The clutter would reassert itself. Thoughts invade his steps. Hands on his watch tell time. Somewhere in the distance a truck would start up. A door slam. A dog bark. His own heavy breath, speak to him, as he trudged up the hill.

The light would be behind him now.

There would be sun.

He would be walking into his own shadow.


from MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE, A Door County Classic/New, Expanded Edition, Ellis Press, 2008, $15


Editor’s Note #2 (‘almost’ a commercial): In the spirit of gift-giving, buying, choosing…(BOOKS!)…a fleeting thought… ‘after Christmas’ offer, of sorts. In case you bought the wrong gift for someone, forgot to give someone a gift, want to give a gift to yourself, etc.…MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE has a long record (third printing) as the perfect gift for just about any occasion, especially Christmas. It’s also appropriate for summer visitors to Door County, for people concerned about the preservation of the environment, be it Door County or anywhere else in the world, and for anybody e just trying to get a feel for this unique place. 112 pages. Illustrated—by two of the county’s best artists: Emmett Johns and Charles Peterson.

the-quiet-timeGiven the current economic pressures…How to make $15 (plus $2.50 postage go even further??? Well, until DECEMBER 31, 2008 and/or till the current shipment lasts (ie. the shipment from my publisher, which I help distribute for him to a few stores in the county throughout the year) I will include, at no extra charge, (while the supply lasts) a copy of the audio-cassette (a $10 value) “The Quiet Time—Door County in Winter” (readings by Norb Blei/Music by Jim Spector) which includes one of the most popular, frequently played/read pieces at this time of year: “Christmas Eve in Door.”

To makes things easier (worse?) I’m prepared to help out the economy be even extending a little credit—should you need it. (I’m a trusting soul.) Send $17.50. When you can. (The sooner the better.) But please, send it by the end of January, 2009.

In the meantime/for now: If you would like a copy of the book and tape, just e-mail me your address or the address you would like it sent to. I will put both in the mail…well, as early as tomorrow, for any orders coming in before tomorrow’s post dispatch from Ellison Bay (11:30 A.M.) If you would like the book signed or inscribed, please include the name(s).



In the forty years since Chicago writer Norbert Blei bought an old farmhouse and settled into northern Door County to live and write, he has built a considerable body of work (stories, essays, poems, public/commercial radio commentaries, public television programs, newspaper columns, magazine articles, online writing, and books) devoted to his adopted landscape, expressing both his love and concern for the stark beauty of this fragile,Wisconsin peninsula.

While the writer continues to address the loss of rural character and community in print media, online writing (www. bleidoorcountytimes.com), and books, this new, expanded third reprint of his 1987 bestselling book, Meditations on a Small Lake, remains a testament to the changing times—informative and thoughtful in its defense of the preservation of the natural landscape, be it Door County or any rural landscape threatened by over development and crass commerce as “place” attempts to retain some sense of history and spirit.

The author has added three new essays to Meditations on a Small Lake, and substituted the original photographs of the first two printings with drawings by artist Emmett Johns, casting a whole new light and feeling to the book’ interior.The quiet, starkly beautiful and arresting cover drawing by Charles Peterson of Ephraim continues to retain its remarkable force in drawing the reader into the book upon a single glance.

I reveled in sunrises, sunsets, the eerie but welcome approach of fog…the fields so freshly washed after a thunderstorm, the serene secrecy of snow falling all night while one slept deeply through it, then awoke the next morning to the wondrous transformation of the landscape, a work of art in progress only partially recognizable, finding myself whispering through the windowpane lest I disturb the white world outside, speaking openly of it.

“Silence is the only voice of our God,” said Melville.

He walks in a diminishing darkness toward that moment night recedes behind him, and the slightest glimmer of first light begins spreading over the east, over the road, the woods, the small lake waiting ahead. He has come to love this moment when the night withdraws the darkest mysteries, uncovering the landscapes bare truths—dirt roads, telephone lines, chimney smoke, a black dog watching him from a distance, white birch trees, an entanglement of branches, evergreens, fallen trees…the long history of stone fences.

Meditations on a Small Lake, Ellis Press, 2008, Illustrated, 112 pp.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 699 other followers