Emily Dickinson Poetry Series, April 13th 2011. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County
Emily Dickinson Poetry Series, April 13th 2011. The Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County
The “Courage to Create” is a four part speaking engagement featuring thoughts from a writer, an artist, a musician and a theologian. They respectively include: Norbert Blei, Chick Peterson, Katie Dahl and Phil Sweet.
Norb was the last of four individuals to address the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County in Ephraim, Wisconsin on Sunday, September 30, 2012. In essence, Blei is recounting the story of his life.
“The creative impulse is hardwired into everybody; it is not reserved for creative types like inventors and artists. Every moment the brain is connecting something known to something unknown, every moment holds a surprise.”
“Creativity,” Einstein said, “is the residue of time wasted.”
Production Credits: DesignWise Studios, Sturgeon Bay, WI http://DesignWise.net | Stephen Kastner, Video-journalist http://DesignWiseFilms.com | Alastair Cameron, Music http://www.cameronmusic.co.uk | Sheila Saperstein, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Recording Engineer http://uufdc.org
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.
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?”
PAINT ME A PICTURE/MAKE ME A POEM
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
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
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.”