Susan O’Leary | Coop Dedication

1 06 2015

Susan O'Leary

Norbert Blei came daily for more than forty years to this coop to write, to follow his passions and to change lives. Stop there.  Because if students who now use Norb’s coop find their ground in any of those, they will have done exactly what they were to do in entering Norb’s space. This is where through the written word he found, and explored, and clarified who he was. In his personal life, in becoming the advocate of Door’s heritage and land, and in reaching out over continents, opening new lives to questioning through his blogs. He wrote to an American soldier in Afghanistan who found Norb through his blogs and held onto them in his daily life.  There was the African writer (I wish I knew more), who grew into considering himself more a writer in corresponding with Norb.  Here, seated in front of this window, he kept in touch with longtime friends and encouraged new writers.  Got annoyed as hell at further development in Door. Wrote scores of books and articles, crafted decades of writing classes at The Clearing, and shepherded new writers into print through his Cross+Roads Press.

He would be honored, and pleased, and also shaking his head in some Blei disbelief (still honored and pleased), that after his death people imagined the idea of the coop coming to find its home here at Write On!, and that those same people and then others gave the money and time to actually move the coop, and that now, his place, is here for you. And the yous who don’t even know they are coming here yet.  Who are maybe just in their last weeks of fifth grade now, but who will in a decade or more find their way here, and enter their own and its silence, and in the consideration it fosters, open their laptop, or pull out their pencil and paper, and….. write. I knew Norb as a close friend for almost fifty years and I can tell you that he would be mightily pleased that his work will continue in this place (place was essential to Norb), here in a sanctuary that nurtures the work of writers and believes everyone has a story to tell. Because that, exactly, was Norb.

I was one of the lucky ones who was taught by Norb at Lyons Township High School in a western suburb of Chicago before he moved up to Door in 1968, when Mr. Blei commuted to us every day from his home in Cicero. I was 15 when I met him, and from that day, my life was changed.

I was asked to talk about that, and that is why I am here.

Mr. Blei taught the love and awe and embrace of books and writers. He introduced you to writers that as a 15 year old in the 1960’s suburbs were far too difficult for you to read, and you read them. Not excerpts, but books. James Joyce.  Richard Wright. Albert Camus. Gwendolyn Brooks. He asked you to think beyond what you thought, and because by now you loved him, you did. We were the Honors class, and he would flunk us on assignments if he thought we weren’t really thinking. That was actually one of my favorite parts of Mr. Blei, that Zen whack on the head if he thought you were relying on succeeding rather than thinking – those of you who knew Norb as the Coyote might recognize some early seeds there.  In the winter of 1966, he took our class to the high school library, spent part of that period showing us how to do library research and then told us, “We’re going to study existentialism.  In a month, tell me what it is.” That was it. No other instruction. And in a month, with a fifteen or now sixteen year old’s understanding, we did. I had never before had the experience of a teacher so believing in me.  Believing in me more than maybe I knew how to.  That was Norbert Blei.

I have never met anyone, too, as well read as Norb. To enter his home, or the coop was to see bookshelves and stacks and piles of books.  A writer’s organized clutter that allowed him to reach for the book he wanted to share with you. The author he thought you should know about.  When I was 16, the year after Norb taught me, I went through a difficult passage with dark days. I waited for Norb after school one day, and tentatively described to him how ungrounded I had become.  I found out a few months later when the column he then wrote for Chicago magazine appeared, that after our talk that afternoon he had stayed up that night, going through his books, searching for something for me to hold onto.  He found Nikos Kazantzakis and Zorba the Greek.  Anne Morrow Lindbergh and Gift from the Sea, and gave them to me that next day as he taught on no sleep.  And I found with him how much the words and care of a mentor can become haven.  This particular time was in Chicago, before Norb moved up to Door. But right here, in this coop, seated at his desk, looking out his window, decade after decade, Norb was that same haven for others. He wrote letters by hand, and typed them, and still at his desk years later, emailed friend after friend, writer after writer, offering belief.  Changing their lives.  That is a part of what this coop is.

You’ve heard some of the stories Norb told in Door Way.  He could write so well because he listened so well. I taught for years with Norb at The Clearing, and I would look forward to Thursdays each year as he shifted who people were as writers by teaching the art of the interview. Norb listened for voice and gesture and tone. He quietly watched for when someone leaned forward or back; honored when a voice became quieter, and posed his next question or simply paused in listening based on the deeper meaning he was hearing in people’s words.  Or silence. He taught that story contains its own stories and that it is the weaving together of story on story that creates a book. As exactly in Door Way.  I learned from Norb to look for the smallest way a story is.  How one sentence can convey character, setting and plot. As in Gretl Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces. (another author Norb introduced me to.)

Nineteen seventy-eight turned out to be the third worst Wyoming winter on record.  After an extreme of sixty below zero, the thermometer rose to ten below and the air felt balmy.

Now here’s the sentence:

One cowboy lit a fire under his pickup to thaw out the antifreeze, then drove over the Continental Divide wrapped in horse blankets because his heater fan had snapped and he had 120 horses to feed in the valley below.

There is a whole novel in that one sentence.

Or this story of the Japanese Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi talking to American students:

You have a saying, “To kill two birds with one stone.  But our way is to kill just one bird with one stone.”

In those two sentences is culture, perception, path in life.  Norb taught me to look for and notice that. He nurtured the writer. Taught that everyone has a story to tell.

Norb’s curiosity about people was astounding.  So go out and be curious.  Question convention. Be generous in your friendship.  Hear the story.   And write. — Susan O’Leary

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Bridget Buff | Coop Dedication

31 05 2015

Norbert Blei

Coop Dedication

I am so very sorry that I wasn’t able to attend this great dedication day of my dad’s beloved chicken coop to the Write On School. When Jude asked me to come up with “a little something to say” for the dedication I immediately thought of something. A conversation I had that sticks in my head and I continue to think about. After my dad passed away and we were in the process of selling the house and trying to figure out just what to do with the coop I remember talking to my dear friend Annika Johnson. I was explaining to her that on my last visit with my dad in the hospital he knew he was going to be leaving us soon. He had some final wishes about things I never imagined him telling me. Specifics on where he wanted to be buried and what he wanted on his headstone. Even the shape and color of the headstone! He mentioned details on his library and his own books but not one mention of the coop! His precious coop!

It was one of those things you always hear about after the fact…”I should have asked him!…If only I would have brought up that subject!” As I expressed this frustration to Annika she replied,”Well why would he have mentioned it?!” These are the words that replay in my head. Why would he mention his coop? I guess because it was such a huge part of him and who he was? I guess he and many others just assumed it would just go with the house. Today I can honestly say thank goodness it didn’t! More than likely the coop would have been used as a shed or torn down. That would have been quite a sad ending to the story…his story!

Instead the story of Norbert Blei’s chicken coop is still being written. His precious writing space is still here with us. Dad would be thrilled that the coop found a new perfect home at Write On in a beautiful field with his dear friend Michael Brecke’s former church in the background. True, it won’t be exactly the same. Not possible. I know he wouldn’t want it to be a museum or gift shop either. It won’t be that. But his chicken coop will gradually be set up as close to possible to the way dad once enjoyed it. His own art and postcards and trinkets and treasures covering the walls and window sills and desk and even the door and ceiling. Hopefully it has that same magical smell and feeling and is filled with sunlight when we step inside. I can almost see the tiny bouquets of black eyed susan’s and forget me nots I would bring to him as he typed in the coop when I was a little girl. He would put them in brightly colored glass bottles he used as vases on his desk.

The best part of all, and the most comforting to me…comes from knowing that my dad would love that now writers can use his own chicken coop as a workspace to inspire their own writing. There is nothing that gave my dad greater joy than his love of helping other writers discover the joy of writing in Door County.

Thank you to so many for making this day possible and for allowing the story of dad’s chicken coop to continue to be written. I know you have dad’s blessing. The coop at Write On will be my first stop on my upcoming trip to Door County. I can’t wait to feel the magic of “the coop” once again. — Bridget Buff





Write On To Dedicate Norb Blei’s Coop | Peninsula Pulse

15 05 2015

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719A91Qij2B87593.medWrite On, Door County will celebrate the literary legacy of the late Norbert Blei and a dedication of The Coop (the writing studio where he worked in Ellison Bay) during its second annual house May 30.

Blei, born and raised in Chicago, moved to Ellison Bay in 1968 and lived his passion and joy for writing, teaching and art. He was writer-in-residence at The Clearing Folk School, a position he held for 40 years; edited a Door County arts newspaper; and was editor and publisher of CROSS+ROADS PRESS, which was devoted to emerging and accomplished poets, short story writers, essayists, novelists, artists, and photographers.

With the help of a neighbor, Blei converted an old chicken coop into his writing studio. Surrounded by stacks of books, newspapers, and notebooks, he wrote at his table, first on a typewriter, then on a computer, composing the profiles that would be included in such books as Door Way and Meditations on a Small Lake.

Blei died April 23, 2013. The Coop was moved to the Write On property Aug. 26, 2014. It will be used as it was intended – as an inspirational place set in nature in which writers can work on their craft.

Join Write On for an afternoon of fun and celebration at their second annual open house on May 30, 1 – 4 pm. There will be live music by Jeanne Kuhns & Small Forest, Pete Thelen, Jay Whitney, Al DeGenova, Charlie Rossiter and Mark Raddatz; readings by contributors to Soundings: Door County in Poetry and from selected works of Norb Blei; and family-friendly activities. Open mic readings will be held during the first hour: readers taken on a first-come, first-served basis and limited to three minutes. Chicken paella by Scott McEvoy will be served throughout the afternoon until it’s gone. Bring a lawn chair or blanket and walking shoes to hike the half-mile writing path. Watch writeondoorcounty.org for a detailed schedule of the afternoon.





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

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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.

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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.