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’s grave

28 06 2013

Norbert Blei's grave





Norbert Blei | August 23, 1935 – April 23, 2013

23 04 2013

Norbert Blei

Photo by Jude

Norbert Blei | August 23, 1935 – April 23, 2013

Stories at birth, before birth, every moment of our lives to the end. We breathe telling tales. And then what happened? The story ends? The story never ends. We are immortal. We are myth. We remember. — Norbert Blei





norbert blei | catching up: death notices & last words

18 08 2012

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND  # 216 (& Poetry Dispatch) | August 18 , 2012

Catching Up: Death Notices & Last Words

by
Norbert Blei

“Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say and not giving a damn.” –Gore Vidal

I’ve sung this song before: I’m having a hard time keeping up with everything. But I sing it again. The too many websites I maintain; writing my own books and other works; publishing the books of others I have every intention and desire to publish by my own small press, Cross+Roads Press; promoting neglected writers and publishers I promise myself (sometimes them) to bring to light—bur too often disappointing us both when I fail to do so for any number of the usual reasons; falling behind on preparations to teach, do readings and/or talks; maintaining communications (e-mail, snail mail, phone, texting, personal meetings) among a network of writers, family, friends…not trying to mention maintain some kind of private and social life beyond the written word—though I may be kidding myself since my life, for more than fifty years of it at least, one way or another, has been associated with the word and getting it out there.

So, yes, I’m behind. Again. Yes, I’m tired. More so than usual. But yes I’m enthused and renewed by all that I do and the many lives I try to reach… so it seems I must continue because this is who I am or seem to have become. Given all that’s on my plate, and no matter how frustrated I become every day, the writing is also on the wall: I’m going to leave a hell of a lot of unfinished business when the light goes out. And I’m just going to have to live with it. Saddest of all, the number of my own minimally noted and planned, partially written, almost finished, totally unwritten books–except for their daily life in my head, where I am an accomplished writer beyond belief, writing two or three books a week in thin air! How I wish there were more time. Or I had done it differently. Or I was different. But as Gore Vidal suggests in that opening quote: “Style is knowing who you are…” It takes time enough to just arrive there.

Which brings me back to the beginning of today’s commentary, which has been on my mind for sometime.

I wanted to say a few words about Vidal’s death…as well as a number of others, recently and not so recently…Christopher Hitchens, Ray Bradbury, Harry Crews…not to mention small press writers, Leonard Cirino, Todd Moore. etc. but I never got around to it. What a loss, all of them, Vidal especially. We can’t replace the likes of him, such truthsayers, on the American landscape. I guess ‘acerbic’ is the right word when it comes to him: “I am an obsessive rewriter, doing one draft and then another and another, usually five. In a way, I have nothing to say, but a great deal to add.” said Gore Vidal on writing.

He had much worth noting about the arts. Things many of us in practice need to be reminded of: “This is not at all bad, except as prose.” Or, “Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies.” Vidal’s line: Though I could take him or leave him when it came to Warhol’s art, Vidal’s critique always makes me smile: “Andy Warhol is the only genius I’ve ever known with an I.Q. of 60.”

When it comes to politics in this country…how we will miss him in the upcoming election.
“Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.”

Better yet, weaving a writer’s words into the American political fabric: “As societies grow decadent, the language grows decadent, too. Words are used to disguise, not to illuminate, action: you liberate a city by destroying it. Words are to confuse, so that at election time people will solemnly vote against their own interests.”

I’m especially mindful of authors and artists who refuse titles and honors by one interest or another: “I don’t want anything,” said Gore Vidal. “I don’t want a job. I don’t want to be respectable. I don’t want prizes. I turned down the National Institute of Arts and Letters when I was elected to it in 1976 on the grounds that I already belonged to the Diners Club.”

He IS missed.

Speaking of last words. I remain a huge lover of the works of James Joyce and have given up trying to defend him–especially ULYSSES. You either love him or hate him. Though you may hate him at one point in your life…give him time. We read him, are ‘taught’ him too early.

He needs to be aged. Don’t read or revisit ULYSSES until at least the age of 40.

I love this recent rebuke that appeared in the NYTimes. I have read only a little of Paul Coelho, but it did my heart good to read how Guardian critic Stuart Kelly responded to Coelho’s remarks:

Since its publication in 1922, James Joyce’s “Ulysses” has been put on trial for obscenity and subjected to reckless over-correction of its punctuation. But now the novel, widely considered one of the greatest works of the 20th century, has suffered per­haps its gravest indignity: being insulted by the Brazilian writer Paulo Coelho. In an interview with the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S. Paulo, Mr. Coelho…whose mystical novels, including “The Alche­mist,” have sold a reported 140 million copies worldwide, declared that Joyce, right, had dam­aged the 20th-century novel by reducing it to “pure style.” “There is nothing there,” Mr. Coelho said. “If you dissect ‘Ulysses,’ it gives you a tweet.” Mr. Coelho, described in the article as being online “almost 24 hours a day,” also boasted of his social media prowess, declaring: “Twitter is my bar. I sit at the counter and listen to the conver­sations, starting others, feeling the atmosphere.” But within hours some corners of the bar had turned distinctly against him. “Coelho is, of course, entitled to his dumb opinion,” the critic Stuart Kelly wrote in a much retweeted post on The Guardian of London’s books blog, “just as I am entitled to think Coelho’s work is a nauseous broth of egomania and snake-oil mysti­cism with slightly less intellect, empathy and ver­bal dexterity than the week-old Camembert I threw out yesterday.” — jennifer schuessler NEW YORK TIMES 8.10.12

I leave you with this:

“Writers, since they have so many words, often have the last one.” –Gore Vidal.





the white bicycle part II

5 05 2012

POETRY DISPATCH No. 371 | May 5, 2012

THE WHITE BICYCLE, Part II

The Best Prose Piece plus Selections from the Second Wave of Poems

EDITOR’S NOTE: I neglected to include the best “White Bicycle” prose piece in Friday’s posting which featured the three poems which best captured the image.

Part II leads off with the story by Jean Casey, followed by an at random selection of good poems which fell into a category the other judge and I saw as ‘the second wave.’ None of these selections are in any kind of order, they’re just good poems—which didn’t quite make the final three for reasons I previously mentioned. (And there are more, which I may or may not get around to featuring sometime.)

I would add one thing to the poetry finalists who were chosen and the prose writer. The other judge is an excellent reader, writer, editor who resides some distance from Wisconsin and would not have known any of the writers had I included their names—which I did not. I certainly expected there would be some disagreement over our choices, and we would have to work this out.

Once the noon deadline was reached, I made my final choices, in no particular order, just three poems and the one story I liked best, then awaited an e-mail from the other judge. There were no phone calls, no e-mail discussion between us. When the e-mail from the other judge arrived later in the day, I was beyond astounded to discover we both picked the exact same works! This almost never happens. –Norbert Bleib

The White Bicycle

by
Jean Casey

He had never won anything before, not a single thing, and now he had this amazing jackknife with all sorts of important attachments which made an important and heavy weight in his pocket. And all because of the Old Ellison Days parade. Oh, he knew it wasn’t a grand thing, but it was a yearly event with fire engines, some folks on horseback, an honor guard of veterans, a few simple floats, and a bunch of kids on decorated bikes and some politicians in shiny cars. This year they announced prizes to include the bikes. He didn’t give it much thought, because he was never a part of anything like that. Fat and slow with a hampering stammer, he hung around the edges of life. His 6th grade teacher tried, because she knew he was bright inside, but he avoided her help.

But this year, before the parade, he felt an urge to enter, especially knowing about the grand prize for bikes, that knife! It came to him one moonlit night when he lay in his bed before sleep that he could avoid somehow being seen as his lumpy self if he…yes! If he went covered up…yes, indeed! As a ghost! Everything must be white! His old bike was a dark maroon, rusty, tired. But, if he painted it…!

No way could he get by with this unless he consulted his mother. In the morning he found her with her mouth filled with clothes pins hanging a wash on the outside lines. She listened, fastening some socks with the stored pins. “The only white we got around here is flat wall paint left over from the living room, but you can use it, and you’ll need an old sheet to wear. I have one. We’ll have to cut eye holes in it, but that’s okay. I’ve got a chain link belt, come to think of it, that ought to help you cinch it in.”

He said, excited, “I think I’ll ask dad for his old straw hat! If he let me, I could paint it white too! I think a ghost should have a hat!” He didn’t stammer, she noticed.

Parade day, he said not a word to anyone, played his part, accepted his prize from the puzzled judge who asked for and didn’t get his name, because this ghost never talked. And now, the bike was propped up in back of the barn, and he would redo it bright red. His dad gave him money for the paint. The prize would stay in his pocket, unless he was at home whittling.


…remember the rides
all the bikes in my life
now white as ghost shadows.

Bonnie Hartmann

THE WHITE BICYCLE

by Sharon Auberle

when everything is falling apart
my friend, when you’re stuck
in the horse latitudes
mired in a dark
night of the soul
when you’re no longer sleek
sexy and smooth

find the white bicycle
climb on that
fat-tired slow beast
pedal and huff and
laugh like you mean it
whistle sing shout
and cuss use words
your mama told you never to

push that bike up a mountain
when you get to the top
when you’re near
to over the hill
when night is falling fast
jump on whoop and holler

ride that old bicycle down
no brakes allowed
fireflies and stars
your only light
and when you wipe out
(and yes, honey, you will)
darkness like a big pillowy woman
will come along and wrap you up
whisper everything’s gonna be allright…

no worries, baby,
she’ll carry all
your broken pieces home…

A WHITE BICYCLE

by Chris Halla

Parked here by an old man
shaped like a question mark

Hoping a young girl in a yellow dress
would eventually steal

his white bicycle away
on a green, spring afternoon

The White Bicycle

by Alice D’Alessio

I dreamt I saw it standing all alone
beside the blue barn wall.
Ghost, what are you doing here?
I asked, recognizing every
feature – the torn seat, the gash
in the front tire from the time
we hit the tree; the dented fenders,
handlebars minus their grips
minus the bell that Mickey Loman stole;
and best of all, the fancy chain guard –
to keep my pants from catching on the chain
and getting greasy. My first bike,
bright and shiny blue it was
and trimmed in red.
It meant the war was over.

The shadowy background
made the bike seem luminous.
You’re lookin’ pretty good, I said,
for an old guy. And then I thought
I heard it whisper, You too.
Let’s go race down Kaiser Hill,
shall we? There’s still time.

The White Bicycle

By Don Fraker

Nearly an albino,
But for her leathery dark barnacle of a seat,
Tattered, betraying her age –
Paint no cure for that condition.

Mobya was my vessel,
Her now-departed basket ferrying books
From their orderly, patient moorings at the library
To the needy harbor of their offloading.

Got her in junior high,
Whitened her in unspoken tribute to the first teacher who credited me with adult capacities,
His brine-soaked incantations of albatross, and mutiny, and whale,
Setting me a-sail on new-seen old adventures.

Though now my daughter’s ark,
No more the carrier of tomes
Of late evanesced, ether-borne,
Her bleached carapace transports me still.

THE WHITE BICYCLE

by Ralph Murre

the way she rode it
as much on clouds
as on concrete

as much from as toward
on a pavement of dream

the way I saw or didn’t see
the way it didn’t seem
she any longer needed me
to run along beside

the way the ride then
circled back in setting sun

the thing about a cycle
is the way it’ll repeat

her white bike may come back
may lean up
again against my shack

who knows when a cycle
or circle is complete?

Resurrection

by Paula Kosin

Even though it is not Easter
My mother hauled her old bike,
Tired, rusty but full
Of fond memories,
Out of the depths of the garage
And in the cool shade
Painted it white
The color of the Risen Lord
Of new life
And alleluias
And once she started
She just spray painted the whole damn
Thing
Tires, spokes, chain, pedals, handlebars
Every nook and cranny
Figuring that if a little paint made it look better
Then a lot would make it look wonderful
And the dirt and scratches and rust disappeared
Before our eyes
Like a miracle
And now it stands outside
Starkly propped against the blue sky garage
Drying and poised perhaps
For her ascension into Heaven





the white bicycle

3 05 2012

POETRY DISPATCH No. 370 | May 4, 2012

THE WHITE BICYCLE

The White Bicycle

In the dream
of red balloons,

of circus tents,
pied clowns and

highwire artists;
a white bicycle

takes you there.

Alan Catlin

The White Bicycle

I’ve painted my old bicycle white.
It is the white of a childhood photograph,
the white of my sister’s first communion dress,
of an awkward smile missing front teeth
and ill-fitting gloves covering mudpie hands.
It is the white of my untucked shirt frozen in mid-laugh.

Now my bicycle is ready to receive the rain.

Peter Kron

The White Bicycle

It’s lurking there in the shadows
of a granary,
ghost of a gone era
when the first farm motors
arrived on tractors
and young girls still rode to town
on two wheels
to fetch supplies home in baskets.

Its basket long gone,
its handlebars like bleached longhorns
on a steer’s deserted skull,
it awaits the coolness of night
and its occasional riders,
dead writers.

Tonight it welcomes
its favorite,
the lady in white.

Come quietly after midnight,
watch Emily pedaling
straddling the worn saddle.

Ed Werstein

Editor’s Note: These were my original directions and suggestions:

Consider this another “Good Morning or Good Day Door County” photo… BUT for poets and writers out there (and others who may be interested), consider this a challenge, an opportunity, an invitation to write a poem (mainly) or prose piece (preferably short) titled: THE WHITE BICYCLE. Send it to me via e-mail only ASAP.  Deadline: Thursday morning (before noon) May, 3, 2012. I’ll print, not necessarily “the best” White Bicycle poems, but my three favorites on Poetry Dispatch, Friday, May 4, 2012 or this coming weekend. Now get on that white bike and ride!–if you have it in you, if the photo, the white bike, something speaks to you.Norbert Blei

This was a much more difficult than I imagined. And though many have asked me to do this more often, I just can’t. The time factor is enormous.

There were close to thirty entries. I made two sets of master copies of everything (deleting the name of each writer in a way even I unaware of the writer) and forwarded one master copy to a qualified writer-friend with instructions to pick three, only three, which caught what I was after: good writing, originality, brevity, etc. This was not easy for the guest reader/writer/friend/judge—or me.

Whatever failed to make the final three, failed… No, ‘failed’ is not the right word for the majority of entries since there were so many fine pieces if work BUT…some of the poems were too long…some of the poems were soaring, only to crash with a poor last line, a trite final stanza, a poor choice of words from the beginning or image…or no image(s) at all, falling into heavy-handed prose. Some need just a little final tuning to make them hum. Some need to be re-worked, re-envisioned entirely. Many of these (with a little more thought and a bit of rewriting) would certainly find a home in various publications.

For the last 12 hours or more I kept trying to bend the rules a bit: Why not six favorites instead of three…for certainly another three…no four, are right on the edge?

Maybe a list (long) of Honorable Mentions…?

Or how about a category which, for want of a better term, I would call “The Second Wave”? I have close to nine pieces that would easily slide in there. ALL of them SO GOOD! But this would go on for pages and pages…

What about separating the prose pieces from the poetry, place them by themselves?

And what to do with these illustrated works that came in out of nowhere???

After driving myself crazy with trying to make almost everyone happy, including myself, I decided to stick with the original idea of printing the three favorites. Plus only one prose piece. And wrap it up with the three illustrated submissions because…because I wish to share them.

I also promise to print some of the works online in the not too distant future.

Thank you all.

I have attached the poem and a photo of a “white bicycle” that is a few miles from my studio. Here in NM they call the roadside memorials markers to people killed in car accidents “descansos.” I don’t know what they are called elsewhere. But families or friends put up white crosses for pedestrians or car drivers who have been killed, or white bicycles for bicyclists who have been killed on the roadside near the scene of the accident. They remind you to slow down and take care. I do not know where they are made but they are well cared for and decorated with plastic flowers. Some are even decorated especially for Christmas and other holidays! -Kris Thacher

THE WHITE BICYCLE

No one depends
On

The white bi-
Cycle

Parked in the
Shadows

Behind the Descansos
Garage.

Kris Thacher

The White Bicycle | Photo by Daniel Anderson








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