Doug Moe: Remembering Norb Blei

17 10 2013


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.

howard sherpe | across the fence: norbert blei – find me in my books

17 10 2013

People often ask me, “How do you come up with ideas for a story every week?” I begin this story as I begin almost every column I write – a blank sheet of yellow notebook paper, no outline, notes – nothing – just a head full of ideas, images, and memories. I’ll let the story tell itself, be its own story, find its own way, until the words and ideas begin to fill up a page. Eventually the words will begin to weave a story together. But the art of writing is in the rewriting – that’s where the story begins to take shape and find its voice.

Picasso said, “Not every painting needs to be a masterpiece.” The same is true with writing. Sometimes you hit a home run and sometimes you strike out. But, whether you’re playing a game, working, doing artwork, or writing, the main thing is to give 100% and try and do your best every time you take the field, or sit down with pen in hand and a blank piece of paper before you. Those are some things I learned from writer Norbert Blei.

We recently returned from three days spent in Door County, Wisconsin. I needed some quiet, down time after a very hectic couple of months. We’ve spent time there almost every year since our kids were young. This time it was different. There was no visit with Norbert Blei to talk about life and writing. Norb died on April 23, 2013, after a two-year fight against cancer. He was 77. He had become a friend and I considered him one of my writing mentors. Norb was not one to offer praise unless he meant it. That’s why it meant a lot to me that he liked my writing and even wrote reviews about my column and cover statements for my books.

Norbert Blei was certainly one of a kind. In 1969 he moved from urban Chicago to the country near Ellison Bay, near the tip of Door County. He lived beside a quiet, tree-lined road that led to a small lake, far from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, where he was born, raised, and was once an English teacher. He later worked as a reporter at the City News Bureau in Chicago with Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, who became his close friends.

After moving to Door County, he worked for over 40 years out of a converted chicken coop on his property that was nestled in the woods near his house. It was the perfect location for a writer – secluded and quiet. Norb authored 17 books of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and essays. He was also a painter, teacher, and journalist. For over 30 years he was writer-in-residence and taught a week-long writing course at The Clearing in Door County. He was a popular speaker and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Norb painted images with words that captured the beauty and character of Door County and the people who lived there. He was once asked if his writing was prose or poetry. He answered, “Does it matter?” I like to call his writing “poetic prose.” He wasn’t afraid to take a stand and lash out in print against those who he felt were destroying the unspoiled natural beauty and serenity of the countryside. We were both on the same side of the fence on that topic.

I’d like to share with you a sample of his writing from “Meditations On A Small Lake.” This is from Down To the Lake – Epilogue.

“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… times of pink prairie rose in bloom along the road in spring… autumns of wild apples and northern lights…

“It’s still early, still almost dark but growing lighter the closer he moves down to the lake… Nobody’s about. No one on the road. Nobody on the lake. No light in the few farmhouses he could see – 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.”

There it is… poetic prose, painting a picture with words. His writing still lives on… His tombstone says “Find me in my books.” — Howard Sherpe – October 02, 2013

warren bluhm | whither the coop?

22 09 2013


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


Ronald Baatz | White Tulips&

18 09 2013

Ronald Baatz | white tulips&

white tulips&

by Ronald Baatz

(c) Ronald Baatz. 94 haiku dedicated to Norbert Blei (1935 – 2013). Metropolis Press France.

White Tulips was originally published in a very limited edition by Leonard Seastone at Tideline Press in 2003. Also thanks to: BASHO’S ROAD | CULTURAL WEEKLY | DURABLE GOODS | FROGPOND | HARBINGER ASYLUM | ISSA’S UNTIDY HUT

All is emptiness
except where snow is piled
in a bird’s nest

Horny all night long
so when dawn’s light comes
I crave its untouched pinkness

The curves of your body
in the curves of mine-
when we are old and blind

Ronald Baatz | white tulips&

If you are interested in buying this book, please go here… or just click the images above.

Editors Note: Please allow 2 weeks for shipment. The book will be produced only on demand and is handmade from A to Z.

Council for Wisconsin Writers

12 09 2013

Norbert Blei

The Council for Wisconsin Writers,founded to honor Wisconsin writers published in the previous year, has renamed the Kingery/Derleth Award for Book-Length Non-Fiction to the Blei/Derleth Award for Book-Length Non-Fiction. The first time this will be bestowed will be at the annual Awards Banquet in Milwaukee, May 2014, which will also commemorate the Council’s 50- Year Anniversary. The awards are named for prominent Wisconsin writers in their category and include: book-length fiction, short fiction, book-length non-fiction (including outdoor) and short non-fiction, as well as poetry book.

Norbert Blei was presented with the “Major Achievement Award” in 1999 and also won the award for book-length nonfiction in 1981 for Door Way and short fiction in 1978 for A Distance of Horses.

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei | Jim Spector | The Quiet Time: Door County in Winter

30 08 2013

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.

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.


This download consists of one 62.27MB zip file containing the complete track list in 320kbps MP3 format along with album art in high resolution JPG format. If you are interested in, please click here…  A listening example is included.


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