Norbert Blei (born August 23, 1935) is an American writer. He has written 17 books of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and essays. In 1994, he established Cross+Roads Press, dedicated to the publication of first chapbooks by poets, short story writers, novelists and artists.
Norbert Blei was born in Chicago, southwest side…an ethnic enclave, mostly Czech (Slavic) called, The Little Village. A significant factor, setting, to appear time and again in the writer’s work. He moved from there (the beginning of WWII) as a young child to a larger ethnic (Czech and beyond) community, the town of Cicero—world famous, thanks to a notorious neighbor, Al Capone. But the neighborhood proved to be bigger than mafia central, as the young boy grew into the adolescent, the young man, the young married man (starting as a dedicated teacher—but with a deep desire to close that door, find his own words), teaching himself to write stories, at the same time freelancing part of his life away for city newspapers and magazines), ‘working’ the neighborhood (people and places) eventually, into stories—and later, books.
In 1969 he left the old neighborhood, trading cityscape, for landscape rural, Wisconsin. Forty years later–one eye still looking back; the other, straight ahead.
He’s traveled to distant places—all of which remain most alive in his head. He would love to live in Greece again. He’s perfectly at home in place.
He writes (not enough), paints (not enough), talks (too much/too little), teaches (occasionally), publishes (others), when he can afford to (time and $)…when he’s moved by who they are, what they might become, what they write…what he thinks they might have to say—with a little nudge.
He prefers the solitary but welcomes strangers, friends, family whenever he finds himself in their midst. He has many friends. And just enough enemies.
He’s been married and unmarried, sharing a life for years now with a woman who has more faith in what he’s about than he does.
He’s a father of two great ‘kids’ and a grandfather to three vibrant grandchildren who spread hope, light, joy to a life and time that seems increasingly dark to him.
He thinks writing matters…suspects much of it a wasted life. Would not recommend it–for all the love and satisfaction it has given him.
He goes on. Yet. For a while.
Today, for now, he has said enough.
DH: What projects are you currently working on?
NB: You’re not the first or last to ask. A question writers dread yet love to address because it opens the door to so much self-importance and bullshit.
Honest writers are uncomfortable with it. Truth is impossible. They suspect they know the answer but won’t say it. The first thing that flashes through their mind is failure: I didn’t do it. I haven’t finished it—maybe even started it. But I’m working on it and I can’t begin to explain what it’s about or what comes next. Trust me. Don’t believe what I say. If I told you anything, it might all disappear.
I wish I could explain all my works-in-progress. Believe me, there are many. I can easily drive myself to the edge and over talking about it…what I’m thinking of doing next. That book. And then that one. And…then the one over there that I’ve been carrying around for twenty years, at least. Yeah, what about that one! And what about the Big one?
I’ve never understood writer’s block. Or writers who confess they have nothing left to say. I need two more lifetimes.
A writer is all fiction. He lives it day and night in his head. Night makes it even stranger. The writing is effortless, ceaseless. He writes pages and pages a day—in his head. How can he possibly ever get it all down, contemplate an orderly progression of ‘works-in-progress’? It’s all the same piece of cloth. He keeps working it, remembering, re-imagining, rearranging…making it better, cutting another piece, making another offering to the emptiness. Pausing momentarily, picking up a loose thread.
Occasionally, the spouse, the partner, the family, intervenes and destroys, immediately, the whole damn beautiful thing on fire in his head, pounding his heart, titillating his body parts. The thing trying to be shaped, made real, consummated, let go—but not just yet!
Occasionally the writer awakes in the dark to relieve himself …consciousness destroying dream scenes in progress … making it impossible to find his way back to the illusive narrative, his ongoing story enhanced, surreal-ed in night theater. He’s wide awake in the dark now, trying to retrieve what he lost, retreating to books–poetry, novels, art, essays, philosophy, religion–in desperation, reading himself into daylight…attempting to reorient himself in the words, thoughts, images of others…light up the way back to a familiar passageway.
Sometimes the phone rings, sometimes a visitor appears, a stranger knocks, a friend gets married or buried…bills and taxes demand attention, the house needs painting, the car repairs, and the dentist grows impatient…determined to extract another thousand dollars from a savings now down to a mere hundred.
Writing is hard work.
Nobody believes you.
DH: What projects are you currently working on?
NB: That’s exciting. And fraught with danger. It comes in a fury. Scattered scenes, lines, paragraphs. Then disappears again. I fear it will never allow me to finish. No, I don’t fear it. I know it. Can’t be done. It came too late. Something I was not prepared to write in such a way till now. It would help to stop everything, lose yourself. One of those foreign movies—a man boards a train carrying a book and a briefcase. Nobody knows who he is or where he is headed—including him. But he knows what must be done. The work that wants to be written. He knows it’s all too difficult: mired in place, getting away. There’s not much to show so far, but he knows where to go when it calls. Rilke said that the purpose of life is to be defeated by greater and greater things. Some writers learn to understand this: you’re not supposed to grasp it when you need it. The unattainable. The box. The paradox. The way it is.
None of it making any sense to anyone else but the writer. Here’s a question for the interviewer: Why does it matter?
DH: What are you working on?
NB: Time. I’m working on time.
Unfortunately, I’m older; fortunately, wiser. A little.
Part of the ‘wiser thing’ is the realization you are no longer who you thought you were or still aspire to be. You’re stuck with who and where you are so far. The work-in-progress is simply this: to be continued
DH: When and why did you begin writing?
NB: High school, senior year.
Why? Self-discovery. Identity. Only child…latch-key kid. Afraid of the dark. That’s all part of it too: learning to live in the dark.
DH: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
NB: When I first saw my name in print. “Identity.”
DH: What inspired you to write your first book?
NB: The myth of the writer. The romance. Paris, Spain, Italy, the Greek Isles. I wanted that—and got a good part of it in the beginning. The newspaper world. The freelancer. The heroes: Hemingway in Africa. Sandburg on the streets of Chicago. Anderson in the rural, his storytelling burg saying life is here, the heartland, among the grotesques. Steinbeck on his great American trek to tell the real tale, expose injustice in the human heart—with intent to make it better. A perfect pathway for the rebel within: let your words be the weapon. I wanted it all…
A small room above a bar overlooking a street, snow filtering past the lampposts…the glow of neon red/yellow/blue/green …shadow and light…a rumpled bed in one corner, an old Underwood typewriter, Bible black, enthroned on a wooden table–before that same window overlooking Chicago neighborhood noir, all promises, all mine, all inspiring. A cigarette, a drink, some music seeping in from somewhere …a soft tap on the door where she is waiting for me to let her in…for the story to begin…
Thus–to learn to live and love the setting. Which, in time, would become my subject(s): the ethnic family, the Old World, foreign tongue, being Catholic: the school, the nuns, the priests, the saints, the man-on-the-cross, blood and thorns, the Latin Mass…stained glass, incense, candles, bells, chants, confession, contrition, Kyrie Eleison. A child’s introduction to theater, drama, art, the open doors to mysticism, glowing in amber, angelic light. Neighborhood ethnic cultures–Czech, Polish, Italian, Irish, Yugoslav, German, Jewish, Lithuanian. Bright lights/big city–smoke, drink, camaraderie. Note pads, typewriters, carbon copies, yellow pencil stubs: Ticonderoga, #2, Soft. Get it all down.
I wrote a book, THE SECOND NOVEL, Becoming a Writer, a whole-kitchen-sink of wail and yap and whatever fit that told what it’s like—perishing by the pen. Out-of-print, deservedly so. Subversive stuff: How to survive in America without an MFA. Not the kind of work which will fetch you a grant or a job teaching creative writing at a university.
Critics often dismiss writers who write about writers, though many of our best American scriveners have occupied that territory—who they are, where they are, what they do, where they go, how they act, feel, think, get lost or sometimes saved, mostly making stories of it all. Each time a little more skillfully, playing the hunch that the next one just may be/become art.
DH: Who or what has influenced your writing?
NB: Writers…many of them. Henry Miller, William Saroyan. Two of the most influential in the beginning. Writing is about falling in and out of love with various writers when you most need them. I still find myself looking back to both Miller and Saroyan. They still have things to say. Persistence. Their love of what they do.
DH: How has your environment/upbringing colored your writing?
NB: It is my writing—as I’ve mentioned. And all of this to be found in stories and books: NEIGHBORHOOD, CHI TOWN, THE GHOST OF SANDBURG…DOOR WAY, DOOR STEPS, DOOR TO DOOR, WINTER BOOK, MEDITATIONS ON A SMALL LAKE, CHRONICLES OF A RURAL JOURNALIST IN AMERICA, ADVENTURES IN AN AMERICAN’S LITERATURE, THE SECOND NOVEL, WHAT I KNOW BY HEART SO FAR, THE WATERCOLORED WORD, THE WATERCOLORED WAY. And everything still to come. It’s all about place. Where you find yourself. What you do with it.
DH: Do you have a specific writing style?
NB: It’s only detectable when I read my work aloud. And only a handful of people, to my knowledge, hear and see what I see. I don’t do many readings any more. I’m tired of hearing my own voice, let alone the voices of so many others. I understand why writers think they must be heard–aloud. But I prefer the printed world upon the page. The silent communion.
Yes, occasionally, there’s time and reason and words worth giving voice to. I heard Frost read aloud. e.e. cummings. Mailer, Rexroth, Bly, Ferlinghetti… If Dylan Thomas were still around—I’d travel anywhere to hear his voice again.
I understand ‘performance.’ Dislike poetry jammed, slammed, rammed, droned. I’ve sat through too many readings where I’m ready to shout: “Does anybody have a gun?” The chairs grow hard, the legs numb, the eyes water in weariness. Pain throbs in the air. One poet reads the same poem with a different title for the tenth time. Another woman is angry—still. At everybody. Enough mother poems, father poems, sister poems, illness poems, season poems, empowering poems, grandmother poems. Hang me with haiku. You CAN’T read/maintain concentration with haiku! Haiku is the finest chocolate candy slowly melting the confines of your own warm closed mouth. Enter—yet another Karaoke Kerouac…another poet boozily Bukowsking himself all over the stage: DOES ANYBODY HAVE A GUN? SHOOT ME—OR HIM!
There are too many people reading their work who should be home quietly reading the best writers in the world, studying the sound and sense of words upon the page, listening for the voice within…maybe yours, finally falling in place upon paper…
Nothing is more valuable than reading your work aloud–to yourself. You can’t believe how bad that word, phrase, line, sentence, paragraph, transition sounds till you hear it coming out of your own mouth.
Do I have a specific writing style? you asked. I’m aware of music to the line. So I sing with it. Sort of. But the voices I hear in my voice are rhythms and beats and breaks and pauses and sounds that stuck in my ear a long time I go—all the way back to the lyricism of Nelson Algrens’s prose (CHICAGO: CITY ON THE MAKE). All the way back to Dylan Thomas’ poetry which sings, sings, sings in my head. I consider myself lucky when a line of mine seems blessed with the distant music of UNDER MILKWOOD.
DH: What genre are you most comfortable writing?
NB: I think the basis of everything is story. Including the poem. It takes a long time to learn this stuff. Don’t be incensed by my remarks. Or discouraged.
DH: Is there a message in your work that you want readers to grasp?
NB: This one could take a long time. And I’ve been holding forth for far too long. (“Does anybody have a gun?”) Yes, of course, there is a message. That’s for the reader to discover.
DH: What book are you reading now?
NB: Far too many to detail here. I suggest readers go to one of my websites: www.poetrydispatch.wordpress.com. Which will give at least a glimpse of what I read.
DH: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest?
NB: More foreign that American. And they are ‘new’ (most of them) only because I may have either recently discovered them—or finally gotten around to reading them.
DH: What is the most misunderstood aspect of your work?
NB: All that I’ve done, in so many areas. How the fiction enhances the nonfiction—and vice versa. The role that painting, the visual plays in my life and work. All that I’m trying to do—including here on the Internet. How ‘blogging’ itself can be a work-in-progress. How all of this comes together. Why part of my nature seems to be more interested in promoting/encouraging the work of others at my own expense–especially beginning writers, especially little mag/small press veterans of the lit world who are so easily forgotten, passed over. How, because I began small press publishing (Cross+Roads Press) over twelve years ago, people forget you are still a writer, not just “their publisher.” That the longer you’re at it, the more irrelevant one seems to become. That…enough!
DH: Any memories of particular works: the writing of, feedback, the thought behind…etc.
NB: I’ll end on these two notes—related to your previous questions:
You asked about who I was reading. I was in San Diego recently visiting my son and his wife, and wandered into a little bookstore (The Upstart Crow) which I had visited many times in the past. Lean pickings on the shelves, it seemed. But I found an old, Penguin Book, yellowed pages, still $6.95…an orphan, for sure…probably on the shelf two years ago when I was there, or maybe five years before that. The title caught and held my attention: LANDSCAPE WITH LANDSCAPE. Strange title. I thumbed through the pages. It’s about a writer—with ‘landscape’ as metaphor. Very interesting—to me. It’s a collection of stories; it’s a novel; it’s an extraordinary piece of work. It was written by Gerald Murnane, a writer I never heard of, an Australian, born 1939 in Melbourne. I bought a cup of coffee. Sat outside by the harbor. Enjoyed every word of Murnane. The first story/chapter was so good, I decided to save the rest for the return flight home. Two weeks later, I’m still reading it. Doling out portions of the work to myself every few nights, thinking: I’m probably the only one reading Gerald Murnane in the state of Wisconsin tonight. The only one in the country. Maybe the only one in the world reading him. It’s important for a writer to know this.
Years ago, when freelance writing was my survival, I queried Smithsonian Magazine about doing a story on the sculptor, Korczak Ziolkowski who was carving a statue of Crazy Horse about 10 miles from Mt. Rushmore. It was a humongous statue, humungous task. Much had been written about the project but little on Korczak, the sort-of-mad sculptor, possessed with carving the largest statue in the world out of a mountainside. He was broke, tired, continually blasting stone, every day returning to the task of creating the great Crazy Horse pointing to the distance, astride his horse—a project Korczak had begun in l948 and was still working on when I wanted to talk with him in the late 1970’s. He died in1982. Family and friends picked up where he left off. The project continues—60 years later.
The Smithsonian turned down my idea of a story on him. But I’ve never forgotten Korczak.
“When you die,” he said. “God asks you only one thing: ‘Did you do it?'”
Years ago I typed that into the screensaver of my computer.
Every day Korczak’s words continually run across my screen, left to right, in marquee motion: Did you do it? Did you do it? Did you do it? Did you…
About the author:
David F. Hoenigman is the author of Burn Your Belongings.