Norbert Blei | Picture the poem

24 10 2013

norbert blei | picture the poem

Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem

with an introduction by
Paul Schroeder University of Maine, Orono

This book is published in part with funds provided by the Illinois Arts Council, a state organization, and by the National Endowment for the Arts. Our thanks.

Grateful acknowledgement is made to the following publications where some of these poems, pieces, and paintings originally appeared: Kayak, Wormwood; Analecta; The Buddhist Third Class Junkmail Oracle; Wisconsin Review; Creative Writing (Laidlaw/Doubleday); Beowulf to Beatles and Beyond (Macmillan); Ace Space Atlas (Ace Space Co.); The Watercolored Word (Quixote Press); The Second Novel (December Press); Adventures in an American’s Literature (Ellis Press); and Door to Door (Ellis Press). “Picture the Poem” (under a different title) originally appeared m Midwest Magazine of the Chicago Sun-Times, August 8, 1971; “Me and My Water-colors” appeared originally in the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine, December 12, 1971; “Poems in the Wind” originally appeared in Insight Magazine of the Milwaukee Journal.

Some of the paintings in this book are privately owned; some are in the hands of the writer for keeps; other poems, paintings, art created solely for the vision of this book have no existence but on these pages.

NOTE: Please address all inquiries regarding acquisition of a Blei water-color to the author himself: Norbert Blei, Ellison Bay, Wisconsin 54210.

Paint Me a Picture/Make Me a Poem copyright (C) 1987 by Norbert Blei. All rights reserved. No portion of this book may be reproduced in any manner, including photocopy, without written permission of the author (see address above) except in the case of reviews and articles.

Published by Spoon River Poetry Press, David Pichaske, editor; P. O. Box 1443;Peoria, Illinois 61655. Printed by Rodine the Printer, Peoria, Illinois and M & D Printing, Henry, Illinois. ISBN: 0-933180-97-7

Please listen to Norbert Blei reading Picture the Poem by clicking here…

Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem Norbert Blei | Paint me a Picture Make Me a Poem

norbert blei | readings by norbert blei & music by jim spector

12 05 2010

Readings by Norb Blei & Music by Jim Spector

Tracklist: Door in Winter: December Entries: 1. 29th Going for Milk 2. 30th A Remberance of Red 3. 31th The White Path 4. Christmas Eve in Door

All selections from DOOR STEPS © 1996 ELLIS PRESS, P.O. Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241

The Quiet Time: Door County in Winter. Readings from Norb Blei’s DOOR STEPS (The Days, The Seasons) Original music for guitar by Jim Spector.

In five seasonal essays and a daybook of 365 entries, Norbert Blei records the passing of days and seasons in Door County, in his life, in our lives.

A delicate balance between the rugged Door terrain and the author’s inner landscape, the entries of DOOR STEPS (the second book in Blei’s Door County trilogy, which also includes DOOR WAY and DOOR TO DOOR) range from objective, almost naturalistic observations to pure poetry.

Jim Spector is best known for his passionate solo flamenco recordings and his inspired concert performances. He has arranged, composed and recorded the soundtracks to award-winning documentary films and music from his compact disc recording “Flamenco Passions” (DCV002, Door Couniy Voices) has been featured on American Airlines. In this collaboration with Norbert Blei, the text provided the images to inspire a musical setting for sensitive, evocative readings.

Produced by Door County Voices, a division of Open Door Productions, Inc., P.O. Box 517, Sturgeon Bay, WI 54235. Readings performed by Norbert Blei. Original music composed and recorded by Jim Spector. Recorded at Sound Fanners, Sturgeon Bay, WI. Produced by Mark Thiede. Executive Producer: Cy Rosenthal. Photography by Dan Hatton.

Much more on Norbert Blei can be found on his web sites: Norbert Blei & Basho’s Road & N.B. Coop News

Editors note: This recording was originally released as cassette and is not longer available. Norbert Blei was so kind to send me one of the very last un-played tapes. Digitalized as mp3 in 320kps | 44100hz | Stereo quality by Markus Mayer in Vienna, Austria.

If you are interested in buying this digitalized tape, please click here…

norbert blei | cabin fever

5 07 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No.187 | July 4, 2009

Editor’s Intro to Summer:

This is the weekend of the 4th of July. Officially summer in these parts for many. Summer ends whenever school bells ring. A solemn note. A memorable sadness. Something akin to a judicial sentencing: time to be served.

But there is both essence and absence to the nature of time in summer. Measured, if at all, by a daily offering of sunshine, blue skies, perfect temperatures…the feeling you will live forever. This is what Eden must have been all about. Still calling us home

Summer here in northern, Midwestern America, and other parts of the world as well, is all about escape. From and to. And part of that destination (summer and fall/winter) remains the old cabin…in the woods…by a lake…

I don’t believe there was a cabin in biblical Eden.

But I do believe they are on the endangered local cultural habitations list. Almost extinct—the originals.

You may have to search the deepest woods, nameless little lakes, farthest reaches of True North to find what I’m talking about.

Lucky the person who does…whatever the season. Summer especially. —Norbert Blei

Cabin Fever

by Norbert Blei

As change makes itself seen, felt upon a way of life and place and work once rural…going, going, going…..gone…
Gone the way of the outhouse, the chicken coop, the windmill, the granary, the machine shed, the milk house, the corncrib, the root cellar, the cistern, the pigsty, the silo, the woodshed, the red barn, the white farmhouse, the home-made flagpole (hewn from a cedar tree) with American flag flying in a blue sky…
goodbye, too, “a cabin in the woods”.
Urban sprawl, urban folks, urban values
assaulting the spirit of the rural, the rustic, the real,

reducing open land and shoreline to NO TRESSPASSING `property’. ..
But welcome Mr. & Mrs. Moreanmore and their minions,
in their million dollar mansions with stone pillar entrances
studded with bronze plaques: “Innisfree”, “Sherwood Forest”, “Dreamthorp”;
gated developments;
class condominiums (Cottage Cove);
phony farmsteads, phony farmers, phony farm animals (llamas in Dairyland). ..
Give me a _ _ _ _ _ _ _ break.

Be mindful of the cabin, I say to no one in particular.
Look and you shall still find them, here and there.
A cabin beside a small blue lake in summer…

A cabin under a canopy of golden maples in autumn…
A cabin buried deep in the woods, deep in snow.
Pause, pay attention, your last respects. Circle the dwelling in reverie.
Peer into the windows.
Try the door. Take up a chair and sit down.
Leave everything untouched. And do not forget:

  • -one room
  • -in a woods
  • -facing water or within the sound of water
  • -made of pine…inside and out..
  • -a saggy pine wood floor that creaks with each footfall
  • -no insulation…bare studs, honey-colored with time…
  • -nails sticking through the water-stained walls inside
  • -a penciled note stuck through the nail sticking through the inside wall
  • -`Ernest’ it reads `firewood, eggs, tape, raspberry jam.’
  • -a wood stove with a stove pipe poking through a torn shingled roof
  • -the lingering smell of wood smoke in winter…soot marks
  • -a wooden screen door with rusty, spring action:
  • BANG BANG BANG. open/shut/open/shut/open/shut/open/shut
  • -a warped wooden front door that doesn’t shut …
  • -a back wooden door locked, with no key
  • -space at the bottom of both doors and around all the window to let the cold air in
  • -old coffee cans and a rusty bucket to catch the rain leaking in through the roof
  • -spider webs in the corners and most of the windows
  • -moths on the screens all summer long
  • -garter snakes under the cabin
  • -frost, ice, snow, on the window glass
  • -mismatched windows, one in each wall, two with muslin curtains, two without
  • -flies, fly swatters, sticky fly paper, dead flies … spiders … ants…mosquitoes …lady bugs…lightning bugs…bats…toads…field mice…wasp nest under an eave outside…
  • -a cardboard box of faded newspapers and kindling wood
  • -rag rugs
  • -a boxes of wooden matches, Diamond brand
  • -burnt candles and kerosene lamps…
  • -an overhead lighting fixture with a 40 watt bulb
  • -three windows with cracked glass
  • -a girlie calendar (1953) “Harold’s Auto Repairs” hanging near the kitchen sink
  • -open shelves above an old gas stove filled with Melmac ware, a couple of cracked China plates, and coffee cups, all but two with the handles broken off
  • -dripping faucet
  • -rust-stained enamel sink
  • -a tiny piece of Lux soap, almost translucent, resting on the windowsill above the sink
  • -a rose floral patterned drape of washed-out material hanging on a piece of string covering the plumbing beneath the sink and a new bar of Fels Naptha soap.
  • -a galvanized bucket
  • -a rag mop in the kitchen corner and a red wooden broom worn sharp to an angle, broken straw every which way
  • -three wooden Victory mousetraps, one still armed with hard old cheese
  • -a cabinet drawer filled with mismatched dinnerware: knives, forks, not enough spoons… a rusted church key can opener, a dull bread knife, a broken spatula, and a large chipped enamel ladle…
  • -two burned pot holder near a gas burner too clogged to light.
  • -a maple-armed sofa covered in a torn blue bedspread across the back and an Indian blanket spread put the length to sit upon
  • -a blue knitting needle and three pennies lost between the cushions
  • -a rustic, wobbly wooden chair, cane seat coming apart, made from branches and a small and an apple crate end-table beside it with torn covers of National Geographic, the Reader’s Digest and fishing magazines.
  • -an old army cot in one corner, covered in an old woolen army blanket
  • -a wooden kitchen table covered in yellow oil cloth with cigarette burns on two sides and three mismatched painted wooden chairs
  • -a flat rock from the lake to set hot pots upon
  • -a shelf behind the front door holding a black and red check flannel hunting cap
  • and four broken clothes hooks on the wall beneath the shelf, with three wire hangers one of them holding a navy blue woolen sweater filled with moth holes
  • -a small bathroom, just a stool, with just enough room to squeeze into and hook the door with an almost empty roll of toilet paper behind you on the tank along with a book of matches: “Ed and Rosie’s Knot Inn”
  • -or an outhouse, with an ancient aroma both nostalgic and non-describable, light streaming in between the cracks, a huge spider web in one corner, old newspaper and Sears catalogs
  • -some evidence of a dog…an old collar, a chain leash…
  • -more evidence of fishing gear: bamboo poles, rods, reels, tangled lines, weights, bobbers, hooks, broken lures
  • -a musty, moldy smell—till the windows are open in spring and summer, till a fire is lit, autumn and winter.
  • -a small, brown plastic radio (mostly static) to listen to news, weather, and Golden Oldies…Going to Take a Sentimental Journey…till bedtime…

-perhaps partitioned bedroom, with a single or double bed to sit upon fully clothed, removing your shoes or boots, your funny old outdoor clothes, thrusting the body back upon the bed in a full stretch against the bare wall or worn head-board…a mattress, you don’t ever want to see…alive, alone, listening in the cabin-dark to the wind, the rain, the insects, the snow falling against the windowpane…freezing, roasting, never enough or too many sorrowful looking blankets, positioning yourself on that unmentionable mattress somewhere between almost comfortable and too soft for a tired back…seeking firmness or a full body press …then sinking slowly into a free fall of partially sleep. The feet frozen, the nose ice…and you sending out a shivering animal call in the pitch darkness of closed eyes, registering all the frenzied pain of C O L D …Was that a scream? Was that me? Two, too small, too soft, unsupportable pillows, punched into shape, sinking the head first followed by body-sinking into sub-zero cold, cold sheets, cold, plastic-covered mattress, falling further into a fetus position harboring a hope of warmth, thinking thoughts of found-in-the-morning-frozen-dead. Ah but for the grace and beauty of frost upon the window glass, (eyes open and shut) in the middle of the night, the middle of the full moon shining through. Must I get up, stand barefoot in the snow, and relieve myself out the front door? How could I ever leaves this home-made hollow of warmth to hibernate through the night, through the long, cold, beautiful winter? Am I working up a sweat? Was I once cold but now fill a fever upon me? Shall I make eggs and bacon for breakfast in a black, cast-iron pan? Salt and pepper the yolks galore? Toast some old rye bread?. Cut the last red potato into chunks, fry it in hot bacon grease, salt and pepper, in the same cast-iron pan…toss in some chopped onion, bits of cheddar cheese, caraway seed. Boil a pot of hot black strong to sit up and take notice of everything, day and night…Listen to the wind in the trees. It must be 20 below…Reach for and pull up that second-hand-shop, fuzzy-pilled, beige blanket of tattered-stitched edge at the end of the bed, too thin to offer much warmth for bare shoulders kissed all night by sudden wafts of cold air stealing in under the door… o beige blanket of too much history, too many bodies engaged in too many battlegrounds of human misunderstandings, lust, or love…falling further into a numb tranquility…a cabin’s the right place for love, for passion, for a solitariness of soul…I don’t where it’s likely to be better…cabin dreams, cabin coffee perking on the cabin stove …come morning, noon, night…come fresh snow, winter birds, sunrise over the white lake, cabin love.

[from WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, PO Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241, $20]

leo dangel | four kinds of lilacs

12 06 2009

Leo Dangel | Portrait by Kristin Pichaske

Poetry Dispatch No. 286 | June 12, 2009


and the poems of

Leo Dangel

by Norbert Blei

It all begins with the lilacs. One whiff…you’re back there again.

It’s not the red-breasted bob-bob-bobin’ robin that heralds another green season in the warm sun. It’s a lust for lilacs. Morning, noon, midnight air scented in a fragrance so divine, wafting you home…

Take a deep breath. Another.

Wrap it around your shoulders…Proust never wrote it– A Remembrance of Lilac Things Past. But he caught the essence. Then.

But this is the moment. NOW! Carpe syringa diem. Everything good is gone soon enough..

“Lavender blue, dilly, dilly…” (Where the hell did that come from?)


In the door-yard fronting an old farm-house, near the white-wash’d palings, Stands the lilac bush, tall-growing, with heart-shaped leaves of rich green, With many a pointed blossom, rising, delicate, with the perfume strong I love, With every leaf a miracle……and from this bush in the door-yard, With delicate-color’d blossoms, and heart-shaped leaves of rich green, A sprig, with its flower, I break.
—“When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d”… for Walt W. and Abe L.

Violet, pink, light purple, purple, deep purple, white…Ahhhhhhhh

I leave the house and the day seizes me in a single step-smell—where lilacs meet and greet, all a-bloom’d in the door-yard. Ahhhhh. More…

cover-old-man-brunnercover---mc-crow-CO-by-bleiI have missions in town to accomplish immediately — but take, instead, the long slow way to everywhere that doesn’t matter and nowhere to go …the back roads…the open fields…the ambush-bursts of lilac bushes in bloom randomly scattered here, there, everywhere… I slow the car down to a crawl, open all the windows… breathe even deeper than before, the deepest, purplish scented air imaginable…recall a woman who wore lilac lingerie (exercising the right of poetic license )…Oh, yes…(she said,) yes… And so did he…or should have.

And though I’d rather not call a halt to lilac lust—I must). This is just a reminder that it all started all over again when I finally suddenly inhaled that first scent of lilacs in the backdoor yard the other morning–after a legendary long winter that refused to surrender to spring, day after day, week after week, on and into the coldest June…the lilacs, scent-less, wondering would they ever bloom again?

This is just to say that on my downtime, slow-time sojourn into backroad lilac nirvana, I was reminded too of this time being the right time, the best time of year not only by lilac air drifting through my car windows…but by words as well …tuned in as I was to Garrison…catching, mid-way through The Writers Almanac, the last few stanzas of my friend Leo Dangel’s absolutely lilac lifting, drifting poem.

Leo, who captures lilacs–and everything rural…real…just right!



by Leo Dangel

“Why don’t you turn at the next corner,”
she said, “and take another road home.
Let’s go past that farm with all
the different colored lilacs.”

“That’s seven miles out of the way,”
he said. “I wanted to plant the rest
of the corn before evening. We
can look at lilacs some other time.”

“It’ll take only a few minutes”
she said. “You know that lilacs
aren’t in bloom for long—if we
don’t go now, it will be too late.”

“We drove past there last year,”
he said. “They’re like any other lilacs
except for the different colors. The rest
of the year, they’re all just bushes.”

“They’re lilac, purple, white, and pink,”
she said. “And today, with no breeze,
the scent will hang in the air—no flowers
smell as good as lilacs in the spring.”

“I thought of planting lilacs once,”
he said, “for a windbreak in the grove.
The good smell lasts only a few days.
I suppose we can go, if we hurry.”







Thirty years ago,
after we marched in the gym
and partied in the Legion Hall,
with the eastern sky lighting up,
I lay down on the back seat of my car
behind Maggie’s Truck Stop Cafe.
No sense in getting home
just in time to milk the cows.
But I was too keyed up for sleep.
There was a box of dirty clothes
in the trunk, and I put on
a blue work shirt and jeans.
At the counter in Maggie’s,
I ordered eggs, sunny side up.
A new waitress—I think
I noticed then for the first time
that a woman over thirty
could be sexy—asked if I
was going to work with the road
crew out west. “Yes,” I lied.
Life on the highway seemed better
than going back to the farm.
“More coffee, honey?” she said.
“Sure, babe,” I said. “What time
you get off work?”
“Five this afternoon,” she said,
sounding as though
she might not be kidding.
Skipping ahead a few years,
I can honestly say it’s been
a good life, but never better
than that morning, diving home,
the car windows wide open,
and smells of spring grass blowing in.
The radio blared the latest hit,
“The Battle of New Orleans,” a happy song
about war, and I sang along,
taking easy victory for granted.


On Saturday evening, .
as usual, I’m sitting
on Irene’s couch
in her apartment above
Dwyer’s Hardware Store,
watching the fuzzy screen
of her black and white TV.
I’m about to open
my second bottle of Grainbelt,
when Irene says,
“I wish you’d say something witty
and romantic for a change.”

What does she expect?
Poetry on demand?
I still have some good lines
left in me, but I’m tired—
it’s the dog days of summer.
But I find myself
rummaging through my head,
thinking about the only
creative contribution
this town ever made
to the English language.
Word got around that Vernon,
who sang in a barbershop quartet,
was always telling his wife
that he was going to Sioux Falls
for singing practice.
“Singing Practice” became
the standard expression, as in
“My tomcat was out last night
at singing practice.”

I set my beer down, turn to Irene,
put one hand above my heart,
unfold my other arm in a grand
sweeping gesture, and say,
“Irene, the corn chips
may have no snap left
and the Grainbelt
has lost most of its fizz,
but Irene, I
am ready for singing practice.
I need to break out
into song. Irene, let’s see
if we can duet in close harmony.
One singing practice will bring
my warble to crooning perfection.”
And Irene says, “Ha,
you can’t even carry a tune.”


“That’s the last of the coffee,” she said,
pouring a few drops into his cup.
“It’s time you went out to work anyway.”

“I don’t know if I’ll plow today,” he said.
“Look, the sky is clouding up.
It might start to rain.”

“The sun is shining,” she said.
“I need to wash the dishes so I can go
to the beauty shop in town.”

“The tractor engine,” he said,
“made strange noises yesterday
and might explode if I try to start it.”

“If I don’t get to town early,” she said,
“I’ll never have time to get a perm
and do all the grocery shopping.”

“Giant, man-eating lizards,” he said,
“have crawled up out of the slough
and are roaming around in the north forty.’

“We both have work to do,” she said.
“You’ve taken twice your usual time
eating breakfast today.”

“I see white on the horizon,” he said.
“Maybe a glacier is moving over the field.
There’s no sense in taking chances.”

“Oh, all right,” she said.
“You can come along.
I suppose we can eat in town.”

[from HOME FROM THE FIELD, Collected Poems, Spoon River Poetry Press, 1997,]

norbert blei | skating backwards

27 01 2009

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND No. 167 | January 27, 2009

Skating Backwards

Norbert Blei

Once after the war the small boy went from the city in a new blue Buick convertible and skated a frozen river in a forest preserve with his favorite uncle who was like a father to him.

Uncle Stephan was a soccer player, a soft ball player, an archer, a photographer, a singer, and a speed skater. He was married to Aunt Edith who always complained about her health. Uncle Stephan had a thin mustache and wore flashy shirts and pants the boy’s father called race track clothes. The blue Buick convertible, the family suspected, was bought on the black market after the war when new cars were almost impossible to buy. Uncle Stephan, who worked for his family’s business, which he hated, was a neighborhood butcher who provided for the family during the war when food was scarce. Packages of meat wrapped in pink butcher paper and tied in coarse string would miraculously appear once a week behind their kitchen doors.

There was some mystery and jealousy to Uncle Stephan which was never mentioned outright. Something about the way he dressed, the way he spent money, the way he ignored Aunt Edith while she worshipped him, which was whispered by the father, the mother, aunts and uncles in the family. But in Uncle Stephan’s presence all this disappeared. The family always seemed happy to see him. Everyone ate and drank and laughed and told stories. Often stories in another language. Sometimes Uncle Stephan would reach for the small boy, “Come here, Sport,” grab him and tickle him till the boy screamed, and Aunt Edith would scold the uncle, accuse him of acting like a child, and the boy, filled with laugher and tears, would come back for more.

He loved Uncle Stephan, who often took him for thick strawberry malts, drove him around the city in his black market Buick with the top down, kidded him about girls, taught him to play soccer and soft ball. Uncle Stephan knew everything. All the boy’s aunts loved him. Including the boy’s mother.

“Okay, Sport,” he said to the boy as they approached the frozen river,” let’s see if you can catch me.”

In the boy’s eyes, he had entered a Christmas card world of woods and snow and children in bright mufflers skating on ice in an afternoon sun slowly turning to twilight skies and lavender shadows, backlighting the black branches etched in snow. He skated very slowly, uncertain of his balance, absorbing the natural world around him, feeling a part of it. It was like nothing he ever witnessed or felt in his neighborhood. Nothing so alluring as a river and the quiet of a forest in winter.

This was the same river where one summer he stood on a bridge and watched men fish from green wooden row boats with white numbers painted on the bow. Bullheads and carp and sunfish were somewhere under his feet at the moment, somewhere under the ice. This was the same river he had seen his Uncle Stephan one golden autumn kissing a woman against a tree. The boy pushed hard with his blades, glided, pushed again and fell. Got up and followed the curving river of ice, his legs shaking.

Up ahead he could hear Uncle Stephan singing, see him moving gracefully on black leather skates with long silver blades. See him making a beautiful arc in the distance and pause to wait for the boy under the bare branches of an old willow tree leaning over the frozen bank. A young girl about the same age as the boy, stood next to him.

“Here he comes,” he could hear his uncle tell the girl. “He likes you. He’s shy around pretty girls.” Both the girl and the uncle smiled and began skating backwards in circles around the boy as he approached.

The girl had beautiful dark eyes and long brown hair. She wore a red coat, red mittens, and furry white earmuffs. She stopped in front of the boy and extended her arms toward him. The boy took hold of the girl’s red-mittened hands and followed her as she skated backwards, pulling him toward her.

Slowly he fell into the rhythm, push…pull, push…pull…

The boy was in love with the girl, the long white river of ice, the black branches of the trees overhead against the falling light. The uncle went back to the car to get his camera and took a picture of them skating away from him down the river, holding hands, balancing each other. Neither had much to say and the afternoon passed quickly.

“Time to go, Sport,” the uncle yelled. “It’s getting dark.”

Years later, alone on a small lake a great distance from the city, near an invisible Canadian border where he settled in midlife, the boy who is now the age of his Uncle that afternoon on the river, skates backwards in the night, swiftly gliding around and around a frozen lake, extending his arms toward the darkness, pulling it with him.

Copy of the original publication of the hand-painted cover edition of 25 copies.

from WINTER BOOK, Ellis Press, 2002; originally published by Chris Halla, Page 5, #6, (Limited Edition), 1995, as a chapter of an experimental novel, WHAT I KNOW BY HEART SO FAR. Winter Book is a mature performance with a satisfying sense of completion. The season is winter; the dominant theme is the acceptance of small wonders, including decay and obscurity. Like Blei himself, Winter Book is alternately nostalgic, angry, and amusing. It is in some respects a very public book, in others a very personal collection. The journalistic profiles are Blei’s own experiences and friends, including public figures like Chan Harris and Al Johnson, and Door County natives, poets, musicians, and artists. Blei’s fictions explore the Door landscape on a deeper level. Blei is an astute observer whose attitudes are shared by readers inside and outside the County. Once again the personal becomes the public, and Winter Book, like Door Way, records communal experience.

norbert blei | a meditation on ‘getting it out there’

28 07 2008

NOTES from the UNDERGROUND… No. 147 | July 27, 2008


“Getting It Out There”

Norbert Blei

MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE, Requiem for a Diminishing Landscape by Norbert Blei. Published by  Ellis Press, David Pichaske, editor. 2008, $15, PO Box 6, Granite Falls, MN 56241Meditations on a Small Lake copyright 2008 by Norbert Blei. Originally published in 1987 by Ellis Press, Peoria, Illinois. Front Cover and page 71 art by Charles Peterson, Ephraim, Wisconsin. Back/inside covers, text page drawings by Emmett Johns, Fish Creek, Wisconson. ISBN: 978-0-944024-45-4

The easy part is writing a book. The hard parts include: finding a publisher; finding a newspaper, magazine, editor/reviewer/critic, somebody in the media to take note of your book; and (over the long haul) developing an audience of readers who will buy your book and look forward to purchasing your next one. They may not like everything you publish, but if you have touched them in any way with your words, if you have gotten hold of anything (in story, essay, poem) the way others see it, or may want to see it—you are on your way to establishing an audience.

The problem remains: the chasm between writer and reader. How do you find each other? Touch him/her? Cultivate them?

There’s always an outside chance every dream about your book comes true: agent, publisher, contract, advanced money, publication …book tours, bestseller list/sizzle, speaking engagements, movie options, prizes, university invitations/appointments, enough money to get you out of hock and almost make you comfortable for years to come. It happens.

But don’t count on it. There are some dreams that are best small…or forgotten. Most serious writers learn to live with these.

Let’s say the easy part is done. You have a first book (or another new one). And let’s say you’re holding the first copy in your hands .Finally. Now comes that hard part: getting it out there. PR, marketing, advertising, mail orders, readings, book signings, word-of-mouth… None of this a given by any publisher, large or small. None of it easy.

Friends and family can buy only so many books. The aura and excitement of publication fades quickly. Here’s your book. Here you are now, a published “author”… But nothing’s happening. Your parents smile and wish you had a real job. Your friends say, “Hey, nice! Congratulations,” may or may not buy copy—they have their own bills and busted dreams to deal with. Your spouse is thinking So what now? It’s still not bringing food to the table…contemplating greener pastures. Your Significant Other is feeling Insignificant. The attention you think your book deserves… that circle is smaller than you ever imagined…and grows smaller. You’re entering (or re-entering) the danger zone of no-man’s-land.

How to reach out? For writers who become disillusioned by the whole process, the question is not how? But why?

I would hate to estimate how many potential and practicing writers walk partway down “the road not taken”—turn back and take the other one which is more crowded and less unpredictable. How many of them give up, fail to develop, lose faith, see nothing but futility in attempting to live by one’s words alone. Years ago a friend of mine created this timetable: “If I don’t publish a book in the next few years…first I’m going to sell insurance. Then I’m going to shoot myself.” (He’s still alive. With a shelf of books to his credit.)

Shall we do the dance of promotion? Most writers and artists are notoriously bad at it. And even for those who are reasonably good at doing the hustle, find it more difficult these days as newspapers grow thinner, book sections disappear, advertisements are ineffective, and nobody knows your name. Everybody has more important things to do than pick up a book, and what readership remains often dwindles to “books-everybody-else-is-reading”—those books and non-books usually featured on major network-TV talk shows, often owned or in bed with the larger publishers whose books are being flogged…often by authors who lost their soul to the very nature of the corporate process of manufacturing books that sell. Not always true of course. But true enough.

Now I’m into ethics. This is all too large a problem to consider in so small a space.

Does the internet sell books? Well, yes. And no. sure does. But that’s another dance. So too bookstore signings, readings from every venue imaginable—living room book clubs, cofeeshops, bars, libraries, various speaking engagements–townhalls, beaches, parks, street corners… Most “underground writers,” have done them all, or will. And continue to do the dance to the end. Or walk off the floor.

Can you survive as a writer in America? Well, not really. Not anymore—if ever. It’s always THIS, and ‘that’—whatever else a writer has to do to make his life work. Too often ‘that’ destroys him. It all goes back to selling insurance and self-destruction. Or to mix some more metaphors, it’s a high-wire act. It was high-wire walker Karl Wallenda who said, “To be on the wire is life; all the rest is waiting,” shortly before he fell to his death.

But to return to the dance. In THE SECOND NOVEL (Becoming a Writer), December Press, 1978, (o.p.), I quoted Henry Miller for my forward:

You want to communicate. All right, communicate! Use any and every means…
At a certain point in my life I decided that henceforth I would write about myself, my friends, my experiences, what I knew and what I had seen with my own eyes. Anything else, in my opinion, is literature, and I am not interested in literature. I realized also that I should have to learn to content myself with what was within my grasp, my scope, my personal ken. I learned not to be ashamed of myself, to talk freely about myself, to advertise myself, to elbow my way in here and there when necessary…
You will have to do it yourself, dear man. Or do it as Homer did: travel the highways and byways with a white cane, singing your songs as you go. You may have to pay people to listen to you, but that isn’t an insuperable feat either. Carry a little “tea” with you and you’ll soon have an audience.
—Henry Miller

To repeat: Can you survive as a writer in America? I can give you some references off the top of my head, writers of considerable record, history, persistency: Ask Todd Moore (New Mexico); John Bennett (Washington state); Ron Baatz (New York state); A.D. Winans (California); Grace Butcher (Ohio/Alaska); t.k. splake (upper Michigan); Dave Etter (Illinois); Ron Whitehead (Kentucky); Alan Caitlin (New York); Jack Saunders (Florida); Bob Arnold (Vermont); Larry Smith (Ohio); Tom Montag (Wisconsin); David Kherdian (California/New York); Bill Kloefkorn (Nebraska); Eric Chaet (Wisconsin); Ron Offen (Illinois); Gerald Locklin (California); Leo Dangel (South Dakota); Antler (Wisconsin); Lyn Lifshin (New York/Virginia); John Brandi (New Mexico); Kenneth Gangemi (New York); Don Skiles, (California); David Clewell (Missouri): …for openers, I could easily add a hundred more, not to mention the ghosts of Frances May, Cid Corman, and Curt Johnson…reading their works, knowing their lives, how and in what shape they made it to the finish line.

You can persist—though that doesn’t guarantee survival unless you define survival on your own terms. Some years ago in Bisbee, Arizona, I walked past what looked like a deserted storefront window, but seated only a short distance behind the window at a table was a writer with a stack of books. BUY MY BOOK his sign said. Which was unbelievable, funny, desperate, and almost scary. I’ve never forgotten that. Nor the fact I never went into the abandoned store to engage him in conversation. I was married at the time, living in a desperate emptiness of my own. I feared that’s what could become of me if I continued to believe I could write and survive.

If somebody, anybody, gives you the smallest break by way of encouragement or exposure…you gotta give thanks. Which was my intention when I began writing this—only to see the piece swerve into whatever the hell I have here so far. You have to thank anyone who in any way responds to your work, even negatively. Any attention at all is important to a writer’s survival., from a professional critic, to a writer whose work and judgment you value highly, to a friend who speaks from both heart and mind, to a stranger you meet on the street who simply tells you: “I really like your book.”

“Thank you.”

All of this by way of acknowledging Joe Knappen of the Door County Advocate, and Doug Moe of The Wisconsin State Journal for their reviews of MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE. Hopefully other reviews will follow, though I wouldn’t bet on it, given the writer’s situation discussed so far. Trust me, these two reviews alone are more than many serious writers in the Midwest (especially with smaller, regional presses) could ever hope for.

In addition to the newspaper reviews, I’ve decided to include/print the “unsolicited testimonials” I have received thus far. (Forgive me, I didn’t ask anyone’s permission and only used his or her initial and will gladly remove it if your are uncomfortable seeing your words in print.) What my friends, readers, fellow writers say and think, matters too–and plays a huge part in my own history of survival.

by Joe Knappen

Door County Advocate,
May 24, 2008

Readers who know only the bluster of Norbert Blei might have missed the point.

To get a better grip on the writer and his favorite theme, readers might want to treat themselves to the re-release of “Meditations on a Small Lake,” an expanded version and third edition of his 1987 best selling book.

“Meditations” is a far from the powerful invective of Blei’s “Chronicles of a Rural Journalist in America”—compendium of columns published in the Door Reminder —or his sesquicentennial blistering of aspects of Peninsula life.

“Meditations” is more in keeping with Blei’s signature work, “Door Way, Door Steps and Door to Door.”

The three works went a long way to define and/or explain Door County, its characters and its special nature.

Indeed, “Meditations” is , all the word implies: Quiet, reverential, a devotional to the start beauty of his adopted landscape, a love letter to the fragile Peninsula.

In the 40 years since Blei escaped Chicago to settle into an old farmhouse in northern Door County, he has done nothing but write and help other writers write.

In that time, Blei has built a considerable body of work: stories, poems, public and commercial radio commentaries, public television programs, newspaper columns, magazine articles, online writing and books. Nearly all focus on Door County

The loss of the rural character and community of Door County continue to be recurrent themes in Blei’s print work and online writing (www.blei and books.

In April, Blei released the third reprinting of the 1987 book, and the “Meditations” continue to be a testament to changing times.

He remains staunch in his defense of preservation of the natural landscape — in Door County or any rural landscape threatened by over-development and crass commercialism.

Blei muses to pin down and define the quintessential elements that make Door County the place it is and explain why its people are the way they are.

The new edition contains three new essays, and the whole takes on a more mellow aspect, like exchanging an electric hard body for a mellow acoustic guitar.

Reenforcing the natural mode is the substitution of the original photographs of the first two editions with drawings by artist Emmett Johns.

The quiet cover drawn by Charles Peterson of Ephraim continues to retain its force in drawing the reader into the book.

Emmett Johns’ portrait of the author on the back cover is real enough to convince the readers they can hear the howl of the Coyote.

“Meditations on a Small Lake,” 122 pages in the il¬lustrated 2008 edition, can be obtained from Ellis Press, P.O. Box 6, Granite Falls, Minn., 56241 for $15 plus $2 for shipping and handling. The book can be | obtained from the author) at Norbert Blei, PO. Box 33, Ellison Bay, Wis. 54210.

[Joe Knaapen is the assistant editor of the Door County Advocate. Contact him at joeATdoorcountyadvocateDOTcom or at (920) 743-3321]

Emment Johns Illustration taken from Meditations on a small lake by Norbert Blei

by Doug Moe

Wisconsin State Journal
June 6, 2008

Norbert Blei doesn’t get angry so much anymore but when he does, he knows what to do. As one of Wisconsin’s foremost men of letters, Blei recalls Mark Twain, who said, “When angry, count four; when very angry, swear.”

In other words, we all must suffer fools and foolishness in this world, but there comes a time when enough is enough.

Now, thanks to Blei and Minnesota’s Ellis Press, discerning readers angered by the noise and mushrooming commercialism in everyday life have an option apart from swearing a blue streak in a primal scream room.

They might instead get themselves a copy of Blei’s “Meditations on a Small Lake,” a cult classic when first issued in 1987 and now reprinted in a fine new edition that includes three new essays and beautiful illustrations, including one of the author, by the artist Emmett Johns.

“It’s a hodgepodge of a book,” Blei said Wednesday, when I tracked him down at home in Door County. “But sometimes that can click.”

This one clicks. Blei offers a mix of his essays — alternately evocative and angry — on his beloved Door County with a selection of magazine and newspaper interviews in which Blei is the subject. Inevitably, the changing face of Door, where Blei moved from Chicago four decades ago, is the subject, too.

Madison-area readers will smile to see included in “Meditations” a piece on Blei written by the late Madison author and radio raconteur George Vukelich. Twin sons of different mothers, those two, sharing a love of literature, the land, and a bedrock belief that humor trumps pomposity every time.

In his piece, originally published in Milwaukee Magazine, Vukelich notes that a mutual acquaintance had warned him about Blei: “He’s different. It’s like a mixture of Studs Terkel and Henry David Thoreau.”

Vukelich could relate because George, who suffered a fatal heart attack in 1995, was himself a man of many parts, a political activist, environmentalist, writer and broadcaster. I remember him captaining a stool at the old Fess bar, telling stories. Norb Blei heard many of those same stories when Vukelich took his WIBA radio program “Pages from North Country Notebook” to a statewide audience on Wisconsin Public Radio.

“I miss him so much on the Wisconsin scene,” Blei said of Vukelich.

Vukelich’s use of the description of Blei as part Terkel, part Thoreau was particularly apt because Blei’s life and writing has frequently shifted between Chicago and Door County.

I met Blei for the first time in 2003 when he was in Madison to read at Canterbury from “Chi Town,” his collection of pieces on his native Chicago that remains my favorite of all his works. It had just been reissued by the Northwestern University Press so a new generation of readers could get Norb’s inimitable take on Chicago institutions like Nelson Algren, Mike Royko and the hot dog.

Blei’s favorite Madison place is Nick’s on State Street, but that first time we met at the Laurel Tavern on Monroe, because Norb had been meeting down the street with the University of Wisconsin Press about the possibility of their reissuing his Door County trilogy that began with “Door Way.” (That collaboration, alas, failed to come to pass.)

He drank Scotch at the Laurel and proved as provocative in person as he is on the page. He signed my copy of “Chi Town.” He promised to stay in touch, and he has.

This week, Blei said he is happy to see “Meditations” back in print. It has given him a chance to re-examine his complicated relationship with Door County, which he loves for its beauty and quiet spaces and hates because that same allure may be responsible for its ruin in the form of condos and commercial development. In the book, Blei notes ruefully that a condo developer once called to cheerfully tell the author he’d put a copy of one of Blei’s books in all his condos.

Still, there remain places in Door where Blei can find the quiet he seeks. He quotes Melville: “Silence is the only voice of our God.” He told me that a former Door resident, returning from Maine for the first time in two decades, recently offered this assessment: “It’s not that bad.”

The first reading for the new edition of “Meditations on a Small Lake” came about when Blei was talking with a friend of his who is minister of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Juddville, in Door County.
“The proper place to launch this book is a church,” Blei said.

“Use mine,” the minister said.

The reading is Monday evening. “It’s perfect,” said Blei, Wisconsin’s amiable contrarian. “Nobody knows where Juddville is.”

[Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or dmoeATmadisondotcom.]

Charles Peterson Illustration taken from Meditations on a small lake by  Norbert Blei


Just wanted to say what a GEM the revised edition of “Meditations” is! Pure Zen–in the feel of it in your hand; the black and white, spare drawings of Emmett’s; and, of course, in the words. The prologue and epilogue nearly made me cry, and the new color is perfect–the blue of the ever present, surrounding waters.

Comforting, but disturbing, to know that, though I’ve been coming here for 25 years now, you’ve been here over 40, and still don’t know what it is about this place…but maybe it’s that Ultimate Question–we finally have to accept that we don’t KNOW the answer, never will and that is the peace and purpose of all…

I have read the prologue, the foreword, the epilogue. You know I don’t always agree with what you say, I don’t think you can “keep time in a bottle”, I think we are destined to evolve, to always be seeking and finding more. I wouldn’t want to live in Buckingham palace but I’m glad it exists. But even if I don’t always agree with what you say I always, always am awestruck and overcome with the way you say it. It is incredible how deeply you can embody each moment, feel every nuance, and then put it on paper in a way that enables, even forces, less perceptive people to enlarge their senses and experience it too. The epilogue especially. Oh, my God–catching a slap of wind in his eyes–hands curled warmly in black mittens—the wind in the tips of pine trees, –opens his mouth childlike, in communion, tasting the sacred quiet.

Maybe you do put time in a bottle. Charlie and Chester [from DOOR WAY] are caught in agate for the rest of us to see and remember the quiet beauty of their lives, for people long after we have “walked into our own shadows” as you put it. Maybe the exact circumstances will never be the same again, but you have caught them for others to remember and revere. probably for generations.

There is one place where you say it is not just the light, or the water or the light combining with the water that creates the mystique of Door county, that you are still searching for it and it is something spiritual, and that is so beautiful and so right. Everyone feels it. And that is what you are trying to save, to preserve. I understand that feeling and share it, and share wanting it to be saved. It is both tangible and intangible, and I think in a greater sense it is something within your own self Norbert, something that can’t be destroyed.

I think if you had never come to Door you would have found it in a Cathedral in the city when all the votive lights were lit, or in the glow of a woman’s cigarette beckoning from a dark door, or from the wild luridly colored lights on a wet city pavement. This “holy” thing is everywhere and everything. It is the presence of God, and you found it as much in Nik Klein who made rocking horses and the newsie and the hot dog seller as you did in James Farrell, or Charlie and Chester. And that is your great gift to witness and see it.

You are as the Gypsy said, “A seer.” and beyond that “a feeler.” You are able to see deeper and feel more and then give that gift to others, to open eyes and hearts.

Emmett Johns Illustration taken from Meditations on a small lake by Norbert Blei

It is truly wonderful, lyrical, poetic, you at your writerly best. We never had a copy, for some reason, maybe just didn’t run across it when we came here in 1989.

I don’t know if I’ve ever told you but it was “Meditations” (I picked it up at Passtimes Books, I think in 1994 or 95) that moved me to write to you about your other books and whether you did workshops. And I never never write those kinds of fan letters. You responded very graciously with plenty of info and a Clearing brochure. It took me another two years to get to the Clearing… When I got home…that year…after years of
floundering…I was committed and reaffirmed as a poet. It was at that point that I decided to make something out of my art.

So the long and short of it is that I can say absolutely that where I am as a poet today is a direct effect of having read “Meditations” back in 1994.

Part Terkel, part Thoreau, huh? And the soul and conscience of Door County, as well. I am glad you are reissuing “Meditations . . .” It really is time to reissue the trilogy too, isn’t it? Thanks,

Something in the Bible says a man cannot be a hero in his home town. You may be such in Door County and Chicago, but the commies in Mad-Town seem to appreciate your jaded view…

read it. great job. i am in fact reading the first edition. it’s great.

……as you know still my favorite [book] and I think one of Emmett’s best sketch’s…… look like a “Goat” I have named “Hairy” that is too stubborn to go up on the roof!!

congrats…that’s a really good review–hope you sell a ton of copies.

If you ever want to come read at the coffeehouse I have a couple months open for the 08-09 season, including Dec 20 (reconnect w/yr Chicago-area friends/students and sell books for folks to give as xmas presents)

Emmett Johns Illustration taken from Meditations on a small lake by Norbert Blei

Thanks for sending the new edition of Meditations… It is vastly improved in visual appeal and readability. The livelier blue cover with white title and illustration, the great Emmett Johns sketches (including portrait of NB), and the improved type font of the text — all make for a sweet little volume! And the added essays are great! Especially liked the quote from Everyday Suchness…

I realized as you read tonight…You articulated my feeling about the spirit of the county and that led me to become involved… Great to see you and I thank you for responding to my letters—nearly fifteen years ago. It meant and means much to me. (gotta see if they’re worth anything on e-bay ..)

your book of lake meditations is keeping me company late at night. it has a warmth, beauty and wisdom that is downright soulful.

Charles Peterson’s cover drawing of a lone man in a boat captures the essence of everything in the book. I can’t keep my eyes off it. I can’t keep from opening the book again to any page, entering the beauty and silence you capture in words.

The epilogue to the new edition of MEDITATIONS is so beautiful…

I wanted to write you a note and tell you how much I have enjoyed Meditations on a Small Lake…
It was wonderful!!!!!! I find it hard to believe that I had never read it before…
As I was reading it I was thinking…YES YES….as I feel many of the things you describe…so beautifully (“it’s the light … Moisture and light etc etc….)…….but could never express as you do…I enjoyed the story In defense of Abandoned Farms as I have always wondered about these places when walking or riding past them…

Emmett Johns drawings are so beautiful and such a gift to have in your book ~to think a person can create such lovely drawings with just pencil and paper…

I really thank you for making this lovely book is available again to us all….