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





Doug Bradley | The Write Stuff

14 12 2014
DSCN0139

Norbert Blei

Doug Bradley | The Write Stuff – 05/14/2013

Norbert Blei — writer, teacher, editor, publisher, and artist — died late last month in Door County, Wisconsin. It would take several blogs to do him justice, so I won’t even try. But I will try to explain his substantial impact on a fledgling writer he took pity on in the 1980s and 1990s.

“I am a storyteller. I am called to the page,” is how Norbert Blei once described his life. Amazingly, in that calling (he wrote 17 books), the former Chicagoan was often “called” to the pages of other writers as well, pages like mine.

I met Norbert Blei in July 1984 when he was writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s School of the Arts at Rhinelander. I was serving as a manuscript reader for another of the writing classes offered that week and was immediately drawn to Norb’s walrus mustache, ruffled clothes, and gruff demeanor. We quickly struck up a friendship, supported by our mutual fondness for writing, the outdoors, and Scotch-infused late night conversations.

Given this level of comfort, I was eager to have Norb look at one of the shorter pieces I was working on for what I’d decided would be a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. As busy as he was that week, Norb not only read my story, but he went through it line by line, circling words he didn’t think worked and writing comments like “too much explaining here,” “be careful with this scene,” and “not sure about this” alongside “good” and “excellent scene.” That was enough for me to leave Rhinelander that summer inspired – and determined to finish my collection.

We exchanged letters a few weeks later, and Norb, as I’m sure was his fashion, took off the gloves. “You’ve got to want to do it (writing). Need to do it. Need to discover just how fucking hard it is out there (in here). To say what you want to say in a way that will satisfy yourself and others. There are no guarantees. And it’s mostly failure . . . “ Well, at least he closed by adding “I hope you’ll stay with the writing.”

I did.

Several months later, I sent three additional pieces to Norb, and he again replied with his usual directness: “I very much like what you’re doing,” he wrote, much to my delight, “I think it’s a book . .” and then came the BUT. Or rather two pages of them, critiquing just about everything I was doing wrong as a story teller, concluding with: “Consider my remarks either helpful or bullshit. I can live with both.”

The question was, could I live with any more of these broadsides from Blei?

Fast forward ten years and I’ve stumbled across an article about Norb and his CROSS+ROADS PRESS, a small publishing operation he’d established for “first chapbook publishing” of works by emerging poets, short story writers, novelists and artists. Maybe this was my chance at being published? Plus, I knew Norbert Blei! I quickly bundled what I thought were my three best stories off to Norb, only to receive a swift and resounding “no.” But again, in that unique Norbert Blei way — via a three-page rejection letter!

“These are good stories, but not ‘great stories'” he began. “I want great stories. These are stories with the potential of becoming great but I do not have the time to sit down with you and help you to shape them.” Then this advice — “You only get better by reading more, writing more, and looking deeper into your own life and measuring it against all the risks a writer must take to grow.”

He closed the letter by suggesting a new title for one of the stories I’d sent (“You Baby Ruth” was his recommendation, which I used) and by quoting George V. Higgins: “If you haven’t always been doing it, you haven’t always wanted to do it.”

I didn’t rip up Norb’s letter in a fit of anger. In fact, I took out the three stories, placed them alongside Norb’s excellent critique, and began to rewrite them, improve them, and take risks with them. It took me another 16 years to complete the collection, and I am convinced that DEROS Vietnam wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Norbert Blei.

I gave Norb a shout-out in the Acknowledgments when the book was published last November. And I intended to send him an autographed copy with my thanks, but never got around to it, much to my regret.

Fittingly, Norb died on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday. Perhaps the bard was thinking of Norb when he penned these lines:

And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.





Paula Kosin | On Losing a Teacher, Losing a Friend Norbert Blei (1935-2013)

13 12 2014
Norbert-Blei

Stories at birth, before birth, every moment of our lives to the end. We breathe telling tales. And then what happened? The story ends? The story never ends. We are immortal. We are myth. We remember. — Norbert Blei (August 23, 1935 – April 23, 2013)

Your coop in the woods,
so like you,
stacked floor to ceiling
precious books
unfinished manuscripts
correspondence from friends
a million compelling projects.
You had a bucket list
decades long,
driven by intense urgency.
So many things to do,
to learn to write to teach
and, always, to challenge.
So many conversations to savor,
seasons to welcome,
seasons to weather
in your beloved Door.
You used to wish me:
Nazdar! Be well!
Now I pledge to you:
Na shledanou!
Until we see each other again.

I knew Norb through his articles in the Chicago Tribune during the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was in high school and college, and this man’s writing made that kind of impact on me. I had always wondered what happened to him, since his byline disappeared from the paper. (Of course, that’s when he moved up to Door County.) In 2003, in preparation for my first trip to the Door, I eventually came to The Clearing’s website. Scanning the list of classes, I clicked on Writing Workshop — and there was Norb! I immediately emailed him, asking if he was available to meet with me to discuss my possibility of attending his class that next summer. That weekend we met over a beer, and talked of both his class and of “the old neighborhood.” You see, my grandparents and parents – and large extended family – are from Cicero, Illinois, the ethnic Czech/Bohemian/Polish culture so beautifully captured in Norb’s Tribune articles and book, Neighborhood. Since then, I have had the opportunity to be in several of his classes and a couple of weekend workshops up on Washington Island. I knew from the minute I saw his picture on that Clearing website, I had been given a second chance. And I took it.

To leave this world with a perpetually unfinished long list of things you still want to do — and no unfinished business with the people in your life…well, I think that’s the way to go. — Paula Kosin

 








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