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.

 





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.