Norb Blei

Today I heard the sad news that Norbert Blei, a quiet hero of the American literary world, has died. He passed away on April 23rd in his beloved Wisconsin, leaving behind an immense body of work and the gratitude of thousands of authors and poets around the world whose writing he selflessly promoted. I was one of them.

I don’t remember how I got to know him. It must have been when I acquired a home computer for the first time, around 2003 or ‘4. But whether I submitted work to him or we just started corresponding and publication developed from that, I don’t know. It seems like there was a lot of literary activity back then. Letters and emails were passing back and forth between Hodder’s home at the Lookout and locations all over the world.

Norb was someone I even thought of as a friend, a long-distance friend. I have photocopies of lots of long emails he sent to me, which I will cherish now and keep safe in my archive in anticipation of the wider recognition of Norb’s work that must come, whether he would have wanted it or not. Yes, he was a friend. But then, around 2007, something happened. I stopped being able to write good poetry consistently. Work I’d sent to magazines and websites kept coming back. My confidence in my art shattered into a million tiny pieces.

It was breaking up with my girlfriend that did it. And loneliness. And burn-out at my care work job. (I was physically and mentally fried.) It was, ridiculously, my discovery of Facebook and all the time and energy I wasted on there. And it was my epilepsy diagnosis. It was everything. Most of all it was my insatiable need to have my ego massaged. If you don’t tell me I’m the greatest I become convinced I’m the worst. It’s childish, but a deeply buried reflex.

I was certainly too proud to tell Norb I was struggling. So I didn’t write at all. What the hell, I told myself. Norb doesn’t want to hear from an insecure care worker with literary pretensions he can’t live up to. But the one email I got from him in the long silence that followed suggested that he had wanted to hear. I’m sure I wasn’t the first thing he thought about when he woke up in the morning (it’s coffee or toilet for me), but when I did cross his mind, I think he felt I’d turned my back on him. Well, he wouldn’t be the first or the last to think that.

A year or two ago I started missing Norb and thought it was time to rekindle our friendship. I sent a series of haiku to his supreme internet page Basho’s Road; but they were probably shit, and he ignored me anyway. Maybe he just didn’t want to reject an old mate. He’d undoubtedly heard about my Facebook clash with a guy who we both knew. This guy told me I should write less politics and more poetry. I blew up at him because his tone was so patronising, and because he’d stuck a thumb in a really raw wound. The next time I looked I was no longer his friend.

It doesn’t do, as a poet, to offend publishers and editors. But when you start playing that game, they might as well “float you down the river with the turds,” as Bukowski so eloquently put it.

I’m saddened, now, to think of all those wasted days when my friendship with Norb could have flowered; when I could have been learning from one of America’s great writers about how to do this and how to say that. Other Voices, the book on my shelf that he edited, and which I have several poems in, is as much of a monument to the stupidity of my ego as it is to the relationship that culminated in its publication in 2007. But we had that relationship for a while, and whatever happened afterwards I feel that was a privilege.

I came along at a really magical time. Consequently I have known some of the greats, and too many of them these days are making their exit. Dave Church, Joe Speer, Todd Moore … they’re all gone. But somehow Norb Blei was supposed to be around forever, bearing everyone on his considerable shoulders like a Mount Rushmore of poets. Alas, he was flesh, bone and heart like the rest of us.

People wishing to mark Norb's passing can make a donation to the Norb Blei Memorial Literary Fund at The Clearing, PO Box 65, Ellison Bay, WI 54210 USA.