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.





richard blanco | one today

24 01 2013

Richard Blanco

POETRY DISPATCH #388 | January 24, 2013

RICHARD BLANCO

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you missed President Obama’s Second Inaugural celebration on Monday, you missed a great moment in American history. The evening news is such a dumbing-down of major (too often minor) daily events, that anything the networks tried to report of the Second Inaugural in sound-bites was close to total failure.

If you missed the address itself, the singers and speechmakers alone, you missed much. Judging by what I heard and saw ‘captured’ in later news reports (which totally eliminated our present poet laureate, Richard Blanco,) you also missed a poem and presentation so perfectly pure and “American” in celebration of the occasion, that I feel compelled to spread the word–a poem that will inevitably find its place in the fabric of our American literary history. “Hail to the chief”—poet. — Norbert Blei

One Today

by Richard Blanco
(read at President Obama’s Inaugural Ceremony January 2, 2013)

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores, peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies. One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions effaces in morning’s mirrors, each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day: pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights, fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper— bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us, on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives— to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through, the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day: equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined, the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming, or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain the empty desks of twenty children marked absent today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light breathing color into stained glass windows, life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth onto the steps of our museums and park benches as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane so my brother and I could have books and shoes. The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs, buses launching down avenues, the symphony of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways, the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling, or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom, buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos dias in the language my mother taught me—in every language spoken into one wind carrying our lives without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands: weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report for the boss on time, stitching another wound or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait, or the last floor on the Freedom Tower jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes tired from work: some days guessing at the weather of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother who knew how to give, or forgiving a father who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home, always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop and every window, of one country—all of us— facing the stars hope—a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it—together.





lawrence ferlinghetti | populist manifesto no. 1

2 01 2013

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POETRY DISPATCH #387 | January 1, 2013

New Year’s Day

LAWRENCE FERLINGHETTI

Part I—(of a possible Part II)…

Editor’s Note: Let us now praise…Felinghetti, while he furiously finds the words to hurl amongst us, age 93, never missing a beat. America’s only true American poet of conscience, given our time. Which is forever his time, whether one goes back to his beautiful CONEY ISLAND OF THE MIND, or peeks into his present take on America singing, crying in his two ‘instant’ classic works: AMERICUS, Book I (2004) and TIME OF USEFUL CONSCIOUSNESS, Americus, Book II (2012), where he takes on Williams, takes on Olson, Ginsberg, Kerouac…takes on the wonder of Whitman and becomes them all in their love and angst over America the beautiful bad.

Before that though, in keeping with the new year, in keeping with the always new-old Ferlinghetti…let us celebrate (poets and readers) the new day with a reminder of a poet’s work. Let us listen, sing, think, write our hearts out to this beat in the days ahead.
We are all in need of manifestoes. — Norbert Blei

POPULIST MANIFESTO #1

(1976)

Poets, come out of your closets,
Open your windows, open your doors,
You have been holed-up too long
in your closed worlds.
Come down, come down
from your Russian Hills and Telegraph Hills,
your Beacon Hills and your Chapel Hills,
your Mount Analogues and Montparnasses,
down from your foot hills and mountains,
out of your tepees and domes.
The trees are still falling
and we’ll to the woods no more.
No time now for sitting in them
As man burns down his own house
to roast his pig.
No more chanting Hare Krishna
while Rome burns.
San Francisco’s burning,
Mayakovsky’s Moscow’s burning
the fossil-fuels of life.
Night & the Horse approaches
eating light, heat & power,
and the clouds have trousers.
No time now for the artist to hide
above, beyond, behind the scenes,
indifferent, paring his fingernails,
refining himself out of existence.
No time now for our little literary games,
no time now for our paranoias & hypochondrias,
no time now for fear & loathing,
time now only for light & love.
We have seen the best minds of our generation
destroyed by boredom at poetry readings.
Poetry isn’t a secret society,
It isn’t a temple either.
Secret words & chants won’t do any longer.
The hour of oming is over, the time for keening come,
time for keening & rejoicing
over the coming end of industrial civilization
which is bad for earth & Man.
Time now to face outward
in the full lotus position
with eyes wide open,
Time now to open your mouths
with a new open speech,
time now to communicate with all sentient beings,
All you Poets of the Cities’
hung in museums, including myself,
All you poet’s poets writing poetry about poetry,
All you dead language poets and deconstructionists,
All you poetry workshop poets
in the boondock heart of America,
All you house-broken Ezra Pounds,
All you far-out freaked-out cut-up poets,
All you pre-stressed Concrete poets,
All you cunnilingual poets,
All you pay-toilet poets groaning with graffitti,
All you A-train swingers who never swing on birches,
All you masters of the sawmill haiku
in the Siberias of America,
All you eyeless unrealists,
All you self-occulting supersurrealists,
All you bedroom visionaries and closet agitpropagators,
All you Groucho Marxist poets
and leisure-class Comrades
who lie around all day
and talk about the workingclass proletariat,
All you Catholic anarchists of poetry,
All you Black Mountaineers of poetry,
All you Boston Brahmins and Bolinas bucolics,
All you den mothers of poetry,
All you zen brothers of poetry,
All you suicide lovers of poetry,
All you hairy professors of poesie,
All you poetry reviewers drinking the blood of the poet,
All you Poetry Police—
Where are Whitman’s wild children,
where the great voices speaking out
with a sense of sweetness and sublimity,
where the great new vision,
the great world-view,
the high prophetic song of the immense earth
and all that sings in it
And our relation to it—
Poets, descend
to the street of the world once more
And open your minds & eyes
with the old visual delight,
Clear your throat and speak up,
Poetry is dead, long live poetry
with terrible eyes and buffalo strength.
Don’t wait for the Revolution
or it’ll happen without you,
Stop mumbling and speak out
with a new wide-open poetry
with a new commonsensual ‘public surface’
with other subjective levels
or other subversive levels,
a tuning fork in the inner ear
to strike below the surface.
Of your own sweet Self still sing
yet utter ‘the word en-masse’—
Poetry the common carrier
for the transportation of the public
to higher places
than other wheels can carry it.
Poetry still falls from the skies
into our streets still open.
They haven’t put up the barricades, yet,
the streets still alive with faces,
lovely men & women still walking there,
still lovely creatures everywhere,
in the eyes of all the secret of all
still buried there,
Whitman’s wild children still sleeping there,
Awake and sing in the open air.

Lawrence-Ferlinghetti-Quote





caroll ann duffy | mr. midas

27 11 2012

POETRY DISPATCH No.386 | November 27, 2012

Carol Ann Duffy

Editor’s Note: Though the “Poet Laureate” honor has never been my cup of tea (given the politics present in such selections), I do occasionally visit whatever fashionable Laureates have been honored on the American scene just to see if they have done anything of value for the poetry cause while holding office.

I’m pleased to remind/report that though Billy Collins (far from Laureate material in my humble estimation), sure did one fine thing in his brief “hour upon the stage”: edit the anthology, POETRY 180, A Turning Back to Poetry, an anthology of contemporary poetry that speaks so plainly, so perfectly to one and all.

He also wrote a magnificent intro to this book, wherein, in part, he describes the discomfort many readers experience dealing with a poem. Having experienced the war zone of trying to teach poetry on the high school level many years ago, I could especially relate to this quote from a student:

“Whenever I read a modern poem,” this teenage girl wrote, “it’s like my brother has his foot on the back of my neck in the swimming pool.”

Buy this book. Treasure it in your personal library. Consult it often. Give a copy to a friend—even a teenager.

Another beautiful thing about this book, and all anthologies, as far as I’m concerned, coming across a poet you have not read before. And falling in love with his or her way with words.

Which is what happened to me, discovering Carol Ann Duffy for the first time. I now own three of her books…and still counting. “Mrs. Midas” indeed. — Norbert Blei

Mrs Midas

by Carol Ann Duffy

It was late September. I’d just poured a glass of wine, begun
to unwind, while the vegetables cooked. The kitchen
filled with the smell of itself, relaxed, its steamy breath
gently blanching the windows. So I opened one,
then with my fingers wiped the other’s glass like a brow.
He was standing under the pear tree snapping a twig.

Now the garden was long and the visibility poor, the way
the dark of the ground seems to drink the light of the sky,
but that twig in his hand was gold. And then he plucked
a pear from a branch – we grew Fondante d’Automne -
and it sat in his palm like a light bulb. On.
I thought to myself, Is he putting fairy lights in the tree?

He came into the house. The doorknobs gleamed.
He drew the blinds. You know the mind; I thought of
the Field of the Cloth of Gold and of Miss Macready.
He sat in that chair like a king on a burnished throne.
The look on his face was strange, wild, vain. I said,
What in the name of God is going on? He started to laugh.

I served up the meal. For starters, corn on the cob.
Within seconds he was spitting out the teeth of the rich.
He toyed with his spoon, then mine, then with the knives, the forks.
He asked where was the wine. I poured with shaking hand,
a fragrant, bone-dry white from Italy, then watched
as he picked up the glass, goblet, golden chalice, drank.

It was then that I started to scream. He sank to his knees.
After we had both calmed down, I finished the wine
on my own, hearing him out. I made him sit
on the other side of the room and keep his hands to himself.
I locked the cat in the cellar. I moved the phone.
The toilet I didn’t mind. I couldn’t believe my ears:

how he’d had a wish. Look, we all have wishes; granted.
But who has wishes granted? Him. Do you know about gold?
It feeds no one; aurum, soft, untarnishable; slakes
no thirst. He tried to light a cigarette; I gazed, entranced,
as the blue flame played on its luteous stem. At least,
I said, you’ll be able to give up smoking for good.

Separate beds. In fact, I put a chair against my door,
near petrified. He was below, turning the spare room
into the tomb of Tutankhamun. You see, we were passionate then,
in those halcyon days; unwrapping each other, rapidly,
like presents, fast food. But now I feared his honeyed embrace,
the kiss that would turn my lips to a work of art.

And who, when it comes to the crunch, can live
with a heart of gold? That night, I dreamt I bore
his child, its perfect ore limbs, its little tongue
like a precious latch, its amber eyes
holding their pupils like flies. My dream-milk
burned in my breasts. I woke to the streaming sun.

So he had to move out. We’d a caravan
in the wilds, in a glade of its own. I drove him up
under cover of dark. He sat in the back.
And then I came home, the women who married the fool
who wished for gold. At first I visited, odd times,
parking the car a good way off, then walking.

You knew you were getting close. Golden trout
on the grass. One day, a hare hung from a larch,
a beautiful lemon mistake. And then his footprints,
glistening next to the river’s path. He was thin,
delirious; hearing, he said, the music of Pan
from the woods. Listen. That was the last straw.

What gets me now is not the idiocy or greed
but lack of thought for me. Pure selfishness. I sold
the contents of the house and came down here.
I think of him in certain lights, dawn, late afternoon,
and once a bowl of apples stopped me dead. I miss most,
even now, his hands, his warm hands on my skin, his touch.

[from POETRY 180, A Turning Back to Poetry, Billy Collins, Random House 2003]





e. e. cummings | happy thanksgiving

21 11 2012

Photo by Norbert Blei

POETRY DISPATCH No.385 | November 22, 2012

e.e. cummings

HAPPY THANKSGIVING

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

–e.e. cummings

  





alice d’alessio | conversations with thoreau

12 11 2012

POETRY DISPATCH #384 | November 12, 2012

ALICE D’ALESSIO

Editor’s Note: I have one small problem with CONVERSATIONS WITH THOREAU, which has nothing to do with this thoughtful and moving collection of Alice D’Alessio’s latest work, her third book of poetry, following A BLESSING OF TREES and DAYS WE ARE GIVEN.

My problem with this book is the same problem I have with a number of small and independent publishers and editors who too often fail to see the whole picture. By this I mean the total presentation of a book.

No one’s got a lot of money to throw at this heroic endeavor: keeping the good word alive via the small and independent presses when the big ones won’t touch this stuff—for all the obvious reasons, and then some. However, these editors and publishers are the true keepers-of-the-flame when it comes to keeping hope alive in some of our youngest, oldest, often obscure writers in the country. There ought to be an annual award (and a big hunk of national financial support) for them, but there isn’t and will never be because …it’s never there for the outsiders, the risk-takers, the small guys who publish for the love of the work, do what they do, what they must, for all the right reasons.

Yet…

I still have a problem with some of their work. A problem, in this case, with the cover of Alice’s book. It’s the WRONG cover. Hard to believe, given what resources a university-based press might draw from. A cover that borders on cheap, flashy, ugly, out-of-synch, unbecoming to the beauty and power of the poetry to be found on the pages within—where the book feels and looks a lot better. Good paper, good layout, design. Another good book added to a growing list of more than seventy-five Parallel Press books published to date. Quite an achievement in itself.

However, a writer of Alice D’Alessio’s talent, accomplishments to date, deserves better. That’s my main gripe. And it happens all too often in small press publications where sometimes the publisher/editor himself is a poor judge of the aesthetics of publishing…no sense of how a cover is the handshake, the first contact between reader and writer. How it should lead to beauty and design within–the total package. Should an editor find himself incapable of addressing these issues, he should either put all this in the hands of someone who does or seek to get better at this himself.

My problem with this book is magnified by the fact I am the publisher of Alice’s, BLESSING OF TREES, and I was aware of the early poems in this new book that were based on the poet’s “conversations with Thoreau” which I loved and encouraged from the beginning—what’s more, really longed to publish, by themselves, in a very small book, a very limited edition of maybe 50 copies, beautifully designed, illustrated—a total work of art in itself. Unfortunately, for all kinds of reasons, this did not come to pass.

But, we do have those poems and more (two other sections, “Revelations” and “Seeds of Hope”) in this Parallel Press edition. Which I highly recommend.

Alice’s grasp of the natural world speaks to us all in ways that make us better just hearing her words. I just wish the cover sang as much as the poetry within. — Norbert Blei

A Walk to Wachusett

H.D.T. from Excursions

May I join you, Henry,
to hike the Massachusetts hills?
The country open and fresh
the morning exuberant with birds:
a place where gods might wander
so solemn and solitary.

You are seeking that blue boundary
of distant mountains, with only
your stout staff, a tent
and Virgil tucked under one arm.
I would come along.

We’ll drink from springs
and scavenge wild berries,
unhurried for appointments.
We’ll pause to contemplate
our natural world, ample, roomy,
with time bounded by wide margins.

Only an occasional farmer
to share his bread and milk,
and pique our interest with his strange accent-
in that halcyon time before trucks
when travelers had no fellow travelers
for miles, before or behind!

And I know I was born too late
or that we’ll have to find each other
in some warp of time. You
and I and Virgil, perhaps, can strike off
to see those undiscovered
unmined mountains,
beyond wild fields and forests.

Our Holy Howling Mother

Here is this vast, savage, howling mother of ours, Nature, lying all around, with such beauty H.D.T. from Excursions

Bad news, Henry,
it’s hard to find Her anymore,
She’s been so scraped,
so raped, so scavenged.
And yet you’d be amazed to watch us
seek the relics left behind—
each lonely riff of trees,
each butterfly. Girded with late reports
we hurry to be the one who gets there first
who pokes the camera
at the purple prairie clover
chases the tattered Mourning Cloak
through ditches, races home
to post the photos on the web.

Yes, we fret about Her savage howling—
louder now in hot dry creek beds
and blown-off mountain tops.
But we are lulled by the sight
of an Oriole at the feeder
as Our Mother rumbles deep in her core
breathes fire and wind
in retribution.

What I’m Doing

What are you doing today? Write in your journal!
Letter, R.W. Emerson to H.D.T.

As soon as I check my balance and pay some bills
before they’re overdue, scrub up
spilled spaghetti sauce
from last night’s cooking spree,
do my exercises—stretch, bend, reach, groan—
take a pain pill, strip the purple sheets
and dump them in the wash, check my email,
invite a widowed friend to dinner
call the furnace man, the dentist

then I plan to walk among
the gold and crimson trees, listen
to leaves fall, cranes squabble
in the marsh; gather seeds from bee-balm,
milkweed pods, coneflower—all ripe and waiting
but time slips by, and I see the clouds
clump overhead, draining the color, but

before the rain comes, maybe a few miles
or so to name each plant and bird,
butterfly, and beetle (in Latin)
muse on the succession of trees—
contemplate our oneness with nature,
and take meticulous notes in my journal,
accompanied by sketches,
I know that’s how you did it, Henry.

But my watch says it’s after 4, and the phone
rings, the mail comes, and I must start the evening meal,
peel potatoes, pound a meatloaf into shape.
If you could join us for dinner, Henry,
maybe you could explain how to simplify.

[from CONVERSATIONS WITH THOREAU, Parallel Press, 2012.]








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