Alice D’Alessio | Norbert Blei/August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award

9 04 2015
Norbert Blei (on the left) & John Lehman, who presented the Award to Norbert Blei in 1999 (John Lehman is the Founder and Editor-at-large of Rosebud, a Literary Magazine)

Norbert Blei (on the right) & John Lehman, who presented the Award to Norbert Blei in 1999 (John Lehman is the Founder and Editor-at-large of Rosebud, a Literary Magazine)

Norbert Blei/August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award

In the winter of 2013, the Board of the Council for Wisconsin Writers renamed its Nonfiction Book Award the Norbert Blei/August Derleth Nonfiction Book Award, to recognize Norb’s significant contribution to the Wisconsin literary archive.

The Council for Wisconsin Writers holds an annual contest to award notable achievements by Wisconsin Writers who have published work in the preceding year. Norb himself was winner of two awards over the years. The eight categories of awards include short and book-length fiction, short and book-length non-fiction, poetry, and children’s literature, as well as a young-writers essay award. There is also an award for Major Achievement and another for Contribution to Wisconsin writing.

Last year at the awards banquet in May, the Norbert Blei/August Derleth prize was awarded to B. J. Hollars, of Eau Claire, for his historical book Opening Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa, published by the University of Alabama Press.

B.J. Hollars is a writer of essays and other non-fiction, including the book Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America. Hollars’s essays have appeared in, TriQuarterly, Brevity, The Collagist, North American Review, Quarterly West, and many other literary journals.

I think Norb would be pleased that a writer who focuses on social injustice would win an award named for him.

Honorable Mention in the contest went to Nicholas Hoffman and Jesse Gant of Appleton for their book Wheel Fever: How Wisconsin Became a Great Bicycling State, published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press.

On May 9 of 2015, the next cycle of awards will be announced at the banquet held at the Wisconsin Club in Milwaukee. Entries in the contest, which closed on January 31, are currently in the hands of judges.

The winner of this year’s Blei/Derleth award has been chosen, and will be announced at the banquet May 16. You can find out more by going to CWW’s website: http://www.wiswriters.orgAlice D’Alessio

award

norb





Norbert Blei – Watercolor Artist | by Jude Genereaux

16 03 2015

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Norbert Blei | Watercolor Artist by Jude Genereaux

I wonder how many of Norb’s readers know, along with all else he accomplished, that he was a prolific water color artist?

Particularly in the late 1970-80’s, Norb turned to painting when he needed to refresh his spirit or give his driven energies a break from the keyboard. On a narrow, tall table behind his writing desk, he laid a simple 23”x 18” flat board where he stood to paint. The only photo I’ve ever seen of him so engaged is found on the back of his book “Paint Me A Picture, Make Me a Poem”, taken in a time zone when he wore his hair long, falling to his shoulders.

The most well known of his paintings may be his collection “Die Mauer”, a series on the Berlin Wall. After returning from a trek to Germany at the time “the Wall” was being dismantled, Norb was haunted by the artful grafitti covering the west side of it. What began as a simple painting to commemorate it for himself, grew into an obsession – in the end he found he’d amassed 46 paintings! Arlene LewAllen, Norb’s close friend and art gallery owner in Santa Fe, was so excited to learn of Norb’s creation that early in 1993 she had him send them to her to be framed and hang in her gallery in Santa Fe. In April, 1993, Norb flew to Santa Fe to host an Opening to show his work, presenting a narration of how the series came to be and talk on the individual pieces.

I later found buried under piles of video and cassette tapes, one of only two VCR tapes that were made of this notable event; be assured copies were made, initially VCR, then transferred to CD’s for the family, a few friends and – history. Many of these provocative and moving paintings were sold, but a number of the Berlin Wall series remain in storage.

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Prolific as this collection was – there were others … SO! many others, ranging widely from the whimsical to the erotic, from his early years of experimental dabbling:

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through borrowings from his favorite artists, Henry Miller, Ken Patchen, Marc Chagal:

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Cover of “Once I Loved Him Madly” | click the image to enlarge…

Over the years Norb’s work evolved into adept expressions of his experiences and personal history. He used painting to express emotional zones he was prone to, naming his collections as he became gripped by them. Some exposed dark side fascinations, as in the “Mr Death” collections:

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One collection sprung from years of growing up as a “Catholic Boy”:

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Others he referred to as the “Angel” series, “Southwest”, “Santa Fe” and “Three Women”.

Norb worked poetry and emotion into much of his work:

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The “Tango Dancers” are among my favorites –

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Norb also painted expansively of Eros … anyone knowing Norbert Blei recognized he was a romantic, a poet, a man in love with life and art; his water colors reflect this.

Norbert Blei

Coyote Woman

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The King and Queen of Bohemia” | click the image to enlarge…

Much of Norb’s work has been sold, but probably far more was given to friends and fellow writers, becoming treasures in private homes from here to California. Some remains in storage. All of his work is a treasure, and “Another facet of Blei”, not everyone knew existed.

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“These paintings are not souvenirs. They are small joys, dreams, meditations, mystical journeys, adorations of the private sort for those seeking what they know not. It is not my business to paint. Just paint.” “The Watercolor Way” Norbert Blei





Myles Dannhausen Jr. | How Norb Blei Found the Internet

30 01 2015

Monsieur K.

How Norb Blei Found the Internet

In his final years, the writer found an audience online through a transatlantic connection
By Myles Dannhausen Jr.

If an editor had worked up the guts to suggest that writer Norb Blei start a blog in say, 2002, Blei probably would have blasted her with an avalanche of disgust for suggesting he acquiesce to the whims of the day, to fit his prose into some new definition of what the reader would buy.

Blei’s relationship with that editor might end right there.

Blei acquired a love for the web the only way he could, in a stroke of serendipity, improbability, and with a great story.

In August of 2007, Norb Blei sent out his Poetry Dispatch newsletter to his email list of devoted readers, This one, edition 179, included a review of a poetry chapbook by Los Angeles-based Mark Weber and Ronald Baatz. That email made its way to the inbox of a man living on the beach of Saint-Nazaire in Bretagne, France, who goes by the name Monsieur K. A fan of jazz and poetry, Monsieur K. had a website, Metropolis Free Jazz, where he sold hundreds of jazz, free jazz, improvisation and other obscure genres, including work by Weber.

Monsieur K. dropped Blei a note to let him know more about Weber, whose website he managed. Blei was fascinated both by Weber and by this strange new connection.

Blei wrote then that he “immediately loved everything [Monsieur K.] did on Weber, not to mention the beauty, design, quality of the website itself. Somebody doing something thing like this, somewhere outside one’s own country, immediately removes chapbook-poet Weber writing from Albuquerque, New Mexico and puts him and his work in a whole other dimension.”

Blei and Monsieur K. exchanged emails, leading the then 72 year-old Blei to take his words to a new realm.

“After catching up with Norbert Blei I came up with the idea to transform his Poetry Dispatch email list into a web page,” Monsieur K. explains. “That’s how poetry Dispatch was born. Norbert sent me all the dispatches and Notes from the Underground in his archives so I could add them to the web page, and we began adding new posts as he produced them.”

Monsieur K. took the text from Blei’s “old fashioned” emails and posted it to the website, adding images, additional information, links, and a visual touch. He had the relationship with Blei that a long line of editors only wished they had.

“Norb always gave me carte blanche,” he says. “It was really easy working with him. We were in contact on a daily basis and I still have thousands of his emails stocked on my computer.”

Now the words of an aging writer, one disenchanted with the deteriorating state of the publishing industry, made their way out of an old chicken coop tucked into the lonely woods at the tip of Wisconsin’s Door Peninsula to readers worldwide. The blog has since been visited 642,000 times and still gets 250 more visitors every day, about half from the United States, but the rest from England, Canada, Italy and dozens of other countries.

Blei was enthralled by this worldwide audience. He learned the language of the web – links, trackbacks, CSS. “He was very keen on following up new web techniques,” Klaus said. “Sitting in a converted chicken coop didn’t make him unaware of new forms of communication.”

The lone day I got to spend with Norb in his coop, he was energized when he talked about the blog. Where a typewriter once sat on his desk, a flat-screen monitor now held his words. It took him a while to make that switch (he loved the sound of the old ones. “It seemed like you had more ownership of the manual typewriter,” he told me.) but the ease of editing sucked him in. His first computer was a Tandy with a green screen, found up down the road in Sister Bay, at Hammersmith’s Radio Shack.

Twenty-five years later he found the internet. Being discovered anew by readers in far-flung countries in the age when the book was dying gave him hope for the writer, hope for himself. The blogs brought him new followers, new people with which to communicate, to talk writing and words. But to some who had come to correspond with him over decades, something was lost.

“He got lost in the internet,” said his close friend Jean Feraca, the longtime host of Wisconsin Public Radio’s Here on Earth. “I hate to say this, but it became almost annoying to get so much. When he was sending me stuff in the mail it was so personal. Before the internet came along he would send copies of articles. I missed that.”

Dave Pichaske, Blei’s longtime publisher, thought the blogs took Blei’s attention away from his books, and lamented the work left incomplete.

“If he had got the projects together I would have published the books,” Pichaske said. “But as a writer, you need an audience, you need to perform. At the end he didn’t have that in print. He did blogs, and that made him happy.”

Still, Feraca realized that the blog, email and this new audience were doing for Norb what the publishing industry no longer could.

“He saw it as the antidote to his isolation. The Internet was the way he could really be a contender.”

One good reason today’s writer might hope to be heard in our world of constant distraction, diminishing readership, a culture gone kaput, rests in what you are now reading on the screen : the community of cyber communication which as writers we’re going to have to live with, study, understand, and utilize if we expect any audience at all. The time when editors, publishers, and agents rang you up for work, courted you with lunch, drinks, promises and blank checks is long gone– if you were fortunate to experience any of this at all. “You’re just going to have to do it yourself” is as true today as ever. Yes, there are still, and will always be publications out there to sell (basically give) your work to, and a handful of quality publishers large and small that might conceivably even invest in your work at their expense in the hope that it might make a little money for them – and maybe you. However, it’s increasingly unlikely these days you will find a publisher who truly believes in your vision as a writer.

Dannhausen_mugMyles Dannhausen Jr. wrote a profile of Blei in the winter 2015 edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine. Dannhausen is a freelance writer who lives in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood. He is a native of Door County, Wisconsin.

 





Jude Genereaux | New Years Eve. Our Way.

29 12 2014
Jude Genereaux & Norbert Blei

Jude Genereaux & Norbert Blei

New Years Eve. Our Way.

There are those of us “quiet people” in the world who’ve spent lifetimes avoiding the hardy HOoHaH of New Year’s Eve. We choose instead to scurry off together after the festivities of Christmas slow down, to savor the peace of just being a duo again. To seek out some place special to share hours of reflection and renewal, in the quiet of winter evenings infused with beauty and light.

This was our deeply held tradition, Norbert’s and mine. We tagged New Years Eve as our own, and escaped to: Milwaukee! The best kept secret in the mid-west. Milwaukee. City of old and treasured buildings and architecture, abundant with ethnic restaurants of every culture, gifted with the world famous Calatrava addition to the Art Museum – and boldly glittered & lit as festive as a city can be. Most surprising: there was somehow a quietness that cocooned the East Side as we walked the snowy sidewalks at night.

As much of a Chicago person as one can be, Norb still came to love Milwaukee. It was something we discovered and made Ours together. More negotiable in scale (and expense), and an easy drive from home in Door County. We could be there in a three short hours, to check into our favorite corner room at the (former) Park East, where we could walk to the museum and numerous galleries nearby. Walk to breakfast at the Plaza or the old Knick; walk past gracious brownstone homes and glorious churches, through the beautiful neighborhood of the East Side. Walk to dinner at the Lakeside, the County Clare Irish Pub or if we were lucky enough to be there on a Friday – through the city square’s brightly lit park to Elsa’s for giant shrimp and broccoli & honey-mustard sauce.

Afternoons were for bookstores. The old Schwartz bookstore (now Boswells) on Downer and the classic “Woodland Patterns” on Locust. Once inside, Norb could only be lured out by a good movie ~ or two … all the films that never made it north to the Door, we’d catch up on at the Oriental or on Downer Street. In between, to wander through Sendiks wonderful grocery to oogle the beautifully fresh produce, and never! missed stopping at Glorioso’s on Brady Street – an Italian deli loaded with wonder.

New Years Eve dinner itself? Only one place for that. “Three Brothers”- from Serbia. The Burek and Serbian salad – incomparable. Not everyone might “get” the ambience of its old country charm, but Norb cozied in like a cat in a cushion. Before all the new road work, it was nearly impossible to find – our first time, we drove in circles through south Milwaukee until nearly giving up, though thankfully we did not. Just a few years ago, one of the founding brothers, Branko Radicevik (now 91), joined us at our table to talk history and recipes with Norb. We did not know it would be our last time.

Norbert Blei & Branko Radicevik

Norbert Blei & Branko Radicevik

One crucial stop remained before returning to our room to watch the New Year’s Eve ball drop in New York. A cab ride took us to the Pfister Hotel for after dinner scotch in the luscious golden lobby, relishing the beauty of the room and Jeff Hollander on the baby grand. Then to the top – the Blu Room, where a jazz trio normally held forth. We finished our kind of New Year’s Eve surrounded by just the right amount of glitter, soft sexy jazz, city lights and – the quietness we treasured, just the two of us.

Time is a river, rolling and roaring and whisking away our days … days that rush at us in abundance, tumbling forth one after another as if they’ll never end. They do. Our New Years Eves were high in treasure, and memory. Friends have followed our lead and some now walk these same paths; I’d ask that you remember us in our favorite haunts ~ that’s what I’ll be doing on New Years Eve.

“We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospection” ~Anaїs Nin.

Alchemy: a mingling; the medieval chemical science, object of which was to transmute base metals into gold, to discover the universal cure for disease and means of indefinitely prolonging life.

Alchemy

A frosty New Year’s morning
from a corner window, our favorite room
we watch the Calatrava salute
a new morning sun.

Sea smoke rolls off Lake Michigan,
the famous blue flame flags our cold walk
to the Plaza for coffee & eggs & early chatter.
Streets lined with brownstone mansions,
gothic churches and cafes steeped
in scent of the old country.
We wander through bookstores
the riverfront; the Oriental at two o’clock.

City lights dot & glitter the night sky as our
cab delivers us to the warmth of golden lobbies
beckoning “come inside”;
Pfister’s piano man teases longing and
memory from ivory & shadow
the tower turns, blue jazz on top.

We start again
open as Calatrava’s wings.

~ Jude Genereaux

Norbert Blei

Norbert Blei





Myles Dannhausen Jr. | An Afternoon in the Coop

16 12 2014

Myles Dannhausen Jr. | A Bridge in Progress | Norb Blei and the pursuit of the writer’s life
Norb Blei is the subject of a lengthy feature in the latest edition of Wisconsin People & Ideas, the magazine of the Wisconsin Academy of Sciences Arts and Letters. In it, Door County native and longtime Peninsula Pulse contributor Myles Dannhausen Jr. examines the deep-rooted conviction to craft that made Blei a much-admired writer and teacher, but also the stubborn streak that cost the native Chicagoan a platform and opportunities later in his career. Here Dannhausen recounts the visit to the Coop that lead to the story.

To read Dannhausen’s “A Bridge in Progress,” click here>>

Blei on his own turf in Ellison Bay, Door County, standing in front of a sign welcoming—or, considering the coyote, possibly warning away—visitors to his converted chicken coop writer’s studio. -- Photo by John Nelson

Blei on his own turf in Ellison Bay, Door County, standing in front of a sign welcoming—or, considering the coyote, possibly warning away—visitors to his converted chicken coop writer’s studio. — Photo by John Nelson


I met Norb Blei too late.

At 32, I had grown restless and claustrophobic in my hometown community of Door County. I knew that I needed to grow as a writer, so I left for a city that had pulled at me as long as I could remember: Chicago.

Forty-three years earlier, at almost the same age, Blei had suffered from a similar anxiety while living in Chicago. Only his pull was to Door County, where he felt he could write what he wanted to, the way he wanted to.

Somehow, I had never met Norb, at least not formally. He occasionally sat on a Husby’s barstool as I filled frosty mugs, and more than once I passed him as he held court at the Al Johnson’s coffee table with Al and their crew of old friends. They were starting their days, I was ending my nights.

But we never spoke one-on-one until September of 2012, when I drove up from Chicago and visited him in his Ellison Bay coop.

By then, sadly, he was wasting away. He had beaten esophageal cancer, but the remnants of that fight were stealing pieces of him every day. His appetite was gone, and the man who once filled out his trench coat so ably now wore clothes that fit him like worn hand-me-downs from a much bigger brother.

Still, he rose each morning from his bed in that cedar shake cabin in the woods, amidst walls stacked to the ceiling with books, in a house still not isolated enough for him to find the authentic writing he sought all his life. So he trudged out, across his gravel driveway, into his famous coop.

He was already sitting at his computer when I knocked tentatively on the coop door. I was nervous. Blei’s temper was known to flare, and he had recently pushed another young interviewer to tears when he determined that she was ignorant of his work.

He welcomed me in, and sitting in his chair he was the textbook vision of a writer. His hair white, his mustache giving him a walrus visage that made his expression difficult to read. Is that a smile or a smirk? Is he mulling, or is he angry?

In the coop on that September Sunday in 2012, squeezed amongst stacks of books, magazines, and newspapers, Blei’s stubbornness was displayed as urgency. There were books to be finished, writers to nurture, stories waiting for his pen. His verbal ticks were those of a writer’s mind scattered:

“I’d like to write a book about…”

“I’m going to write a story about…”

“I wish I had interviewed…”

“I’d like to get Ingert to write her thoughts down…”

He was struggling to make progress now, his writing hours shorter and shorter as he fought his self-made distractions and father time. He loved “this Internet thing,” fascinated that, as the market for books faded, he was in greater touch with his readers than ever before. His typewriter was gone, replaced by a computer and large external monitor, the new marks of the modern writer.

His face lit up as we talked about the greatest firestorm of his career, when he railed against development in Door County in a short-lived tenure as a columnist at the Door Reminder.

“I could just fly,” he said. “I got away with murder there.”

More than two decades later he remained an angry journalist, desperate to see the pot stirred, the comfortable made uncomfortable, complacency turned to argument. “Who’s writing about poverty?” he said. “Who’s covering the county board?!? Nobody! There are no journalists anymore.”

As he railed, I couldn’t help but wonder why he wasn’t among them. Why he couldn’t just work well enough with others to take on some of these issues himself. But that was Norb, the Coyote firing from the outside in, where he felt he could make the biggest impact.

Now he was determined to finish dozens of projects left undone. Some of these projects were just empty folders on the desktop of his computer, little more than a file with a title inside. Others were represented in piles of hand-written notes and ideas gathering dust in the large stacks of books and papers that surrounded his desk.

Norb was not finished with us yet.

When the September sun was fading on my visit to the coop, it was clear Norb needed a break. He walked me out to his driveway with a pit-stop at his car. There he carried the true mark of a Midwestern writer – a trunk full of copies of his books, ready to hustle.

He gave me copies of each, and we spent a few minutes on his stoop as he told me of the time Mike Royko, the legendary Chicago columnist, visited him here.

We talked about catching up in Chicago sometime. I wanted him to take me down to his old neighborhood, Cicero, for a stroll. Blei was enthusiastic, said he needed to get back there again. He stood on his stoop and waved as I backed out of the driveway, and after three hours, I could tell there was a smile beneath his mustache.

We traded emails and planned future visits, but his failing health intervened.

After waving goodbye to him on his stoop, I never saw him again. He died in April of 2013.

But for me, and for anyone who dares attempt to write anything of substance about the people and places of Door County, Blei is still here, his shadow looming, his standard beyond our reach.– Myles Dannhausen

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

The interior to Blei’s writer’s studio reflects a man with many ideas and avenues for exploration. - Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

The interior to Blei’s writer’s studio reflects a man with many ideas and avenues for exploration. – Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Photo by Myles Dannhausen Jr.

Dannhausen_mugMyles Dannhausen Jr. is a native of Door County now living in Chicago, just a couple of miles from the neighborhood where author Norb Blei grew up. Dannhausen is a contributing editor for the Peninsula Pulse newspaper and Door County Living, and has also written for Chicago Athlete, Exclusively Yours, Running Times, UltraRunning, and GapersBlock.com. He returns to Door County frequently to work his parents’ garden and serve as course director of the Door County Half Marathon, Peninsula Century Ride, Spring Classic Ride, and organize the Door County Beer Festival.





Warren P. Nelson | Poem for Norbert Blei

14 12 2014
Warren Nelson at Big Top Chautauqua © Sophia Hantzes

Warren Nelson at Big Top Chautauqua © Sophia Hantzes

This is a poem for Norbert Blei, great friend of mine, a soulmate of Wisconsin transported from Chicago. Norbert lives in Door County where for many years he has practiced his great writing art in the conscience of our times. I admire (as do so many) his incredible voice lifting through his writings, and his presence in the landscape of what was and could be. Norbert has SPINE! Like his books written under the hat of his name. He is a Wisconsin treasure with a hark to the nation. Besides his own incredible works, he has published through his Cross+Roads Press many books of poems and prose of other writers who deserve attention. He works out of his “Coop” but he’s no chicken of a voice. More like a rooster crowing to the day to wake up! Google Norbert and begin your way into his world if you aren’t yet familiar.

NORBERT BLEI – March 26, 2010

Codger, a dodger, confidence trickster-
Keeper of Wisconsin.
Writer, let’s know, of great Wisconsin wrongs.

I would lay light that his work
Unpaving a road through Door County
Will whisk dust up for young writers to come to
Find voice and camp there in their own
With a consciousness of no conciliations,
Follow their bare bones loosening the bullshit
To fit this new world that frighteningly forgets the old.
Prose man, poet blender.
Sender off to the world
His great working gifts.

A presence lifted from Illinois
Took the flyway of Lake Michigan
And built a nest as eagles do north
Where all can be seen from.

Perched in his coop to
Sway swoop down on any day.
Craft steeped like how-ever-old-he-is whiskey.
You can smell it on his breathway-
The truth.

Honor to the deep in shallow politics.
He is editing our time,
The anger all behind a voice of sweetness.

Plow the road.
Like that crazy crooked county road
That hauls all to the landing across from
Washington Island.
Jesus, who platted that?
Only one who can laugh along the way.

Norbert Blei ferries himself across
All of us.

Warren P. Nelson








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