Jensen’s Great Poem, an essay about The Clearing School and Norbert Blei

(My friend and mentor Norbert Blei had asked me to write an essay about my experience at The Clearing Folk School in Ellison Bay, Wisc., for a book he was working on about the school, Jens Jensen the founder of the school, and his 40-year tenure as writer-in-residence at The Clearing.  Norb died this past year and who knows if his book will ever be published, but I am grateful to him for so many things and for asking me to write this essay.)

I’m looking at a black & white photo of the inside of Jens Jensen’s Cliff House. In this photo I can smell aged wood and stone, red embers in the hearth, time. I hear the sound of leaves in conversation with the wind and the sighs of the water far below, lapping with each breath of the Lake; the gulls, always the cawing gulls, soar with motionless wings; one fly buzzes against the window pane.

I took this photo in June of 1996, my first visit to The Clearing, and on the small table in this photo is the book I was reading, The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart, an anthology of poetry for men. I remember my first step into the Cliff House, I remember the poems I wrote there that week. I didn’t know that I was searching, but when I undid the latch and opened the wood-planked door, I knew I had found it. Sanctuary, solitude, silence, the holy place Jensen built for himself at the far corner of The Clearing property, far from the dining room, the schoolhouse, the energy of students and family, a place seemingly suspended in space, at the edge of a stone bluff, at the far edge of a cultivated world. I remember the journey through that book of poetry sitting at Jens’ handmade table. I can look at this photo and bring myself back to the place, like a mantra, a prayer, a centering meditation, a balancing of myself. The Clearing.

For me, discovering The Clearing was discovering Norbert Blei. A visit to Door County at Easter each year had become my family’s tradition. Each year we would welcome spring in Door; it became our “new year” celebration. The weekend consisted mostly of hiking, indoor swimming with my two young sons and rummaging through Pastime Books and Caxton’s Books. In ’94 or ’95, I bought a copy of Norb’s book, Meditations on a Small Lake. So taken with his writing and aesthetic, I uncharacteristically wrote a fan letter to the author, asking where I could buy more of his books and whether he ever taught workshops in the Chicago area. He answered saying I could buy any of his books directly from him and that he taught a writing course each summer. He included a Clearing brochure.

I have been a professional writer since 1979 when I began my working life as a journalist; that was followed by a move into public relations and then into marketing communications. I always say that what I do for a living is marketing, but what I am is a writer. I have also written poetry since high school. With my handful of poetry journal publications, a 1992 self-published chapbook, and my work as a writer, I was accepted into the “advanced” section of the Norbert Blei Writing Workshop.

At that time I had been struggling with my poetry. I had no peer group, no direction, nothing but rejections from journals and a fear of venturing out into the Chicago “poetry scene.” I had no idea if my poetry had any value, but I knew that I was driven by something I couldn’t explain to continue writing poems. All my creative urges, all my emotional experiences good and bad, came out in lines and sounds of words.

I needed that class, that getaway from life, desperately. My life was in crisis — fracturing around me for all the reasons that sound clichéd — that sound like life — and I needed to escape into poetry, into a writing class. That’s what I thought about as I drove from Chicago to Ellison Bay, leaving the people, the traffic, the family, the density and intensity of the city behind. I lit a cigar, turned up the CD player and drove…alone, me and a backpack full of books and an electric typewriter.

Norb’s class was everything I had expected…a group of fine writers, poets mostly, good friends with each other, a cohesive, supportive, accepting group that talked about writing and poetry and life as writers, and they accepted me, liked my poetry, asked me to read for them. I had become part of something, but there is only one Norbert Blei. He was the glue, the central energy of the group. His passion for the literary subjects he chooses to teach, his dedication to the writing life, to the purity of the word, to the flow of feeling to thought to words on the page…his stubborn adherence to ideals and perfection…these are what inspire his students, a special kind of student that only needs to stand near the fire to find personal ignition. And a powerful fire Norb is, though he never burns. He does not tell his students what to do, how to fix, what to change; he makes suggestions, offers writing prompts, sends you down the right path…no matter what the path may be for a given student. Most writers in the class know their path (or simply have yet to recognize it); Norb is the torch that throws light upon it, making those next steps clear. The path is always ahead and never out of view.

Outside the schoolhouse and the dorms and the main lodge are the trails, the sunsets, the beach. I’m a city kid to my marrow, a saxophone player with a jazz and blues soundtrack constantly in my head, but I’ve always felt the call of Lake Michigan, always felt something calling from the waves and always needed to breathe with the wind. This was what I hadn’t expected at my first class at The Clearing — walking the trails, finding my special places to sit and view the lake and her sunsets. For the first time in a very long time, I was spending time with myself. And I was writing!

In hindsight, I cannot say which had the strongest effect: Norb, my fellow students, or The Clearing. What I do know is that when I got home from my first Norbert Blei class, I said to myself, out loud at my desk, “I am a poet.”

Now, fifteen years later, with three books of poetry to my credit (one of them published by Norb Blei’s Cross+Roads Press), I’m also the publisher and co-editor of the literary journal After Hours, which I launched in June, 2000. I’ve performed my poetry throughout the Midwest and I host poetry events in Chicago. I’ve returned to The Clearing and Norb’s classes many times; I can’t even begin to express my gratitude to my Clearing friends, lifelong and dear. I was Norb’s assistant teacher in 1999 and 2000; and again helped lead the class in 2008 and 2009. I’ve learned that I love to teach writing and poetry as well. In fact, I missed The Clearing in 2003-2005 when I was working on my MFA in writing. I can say unequivocally that it was my first visit to The Clearing in June, 1996, when my path was suddenly lit and became ever so clear.

I am looking at a black & white photo of the inside of Jens Jensen’s Cliff House. It hasn’t changed. This year, 2011, I spent the night there (again). A restful, peaceful night with a roaring fire that sang me to sleep. Years ago, overnighting in the Cliff House was fearful, was learning how to be completely alone. But it is from this kind of solitude that art is born. Some find it in dirty attics or musty basements; there was a time when I could find solitude on a city bus or a crowded cafeteria, but today, I find it among the beech and birch trees, the quiet Lady Slippers and exploding poppies, in the cedar sprigs I rub in my hands to inhale the musk of mother nature. This is where I refocus the poetry inside me.

Now, as I hike through The Clearing, I know that I am walking through Jens Jensen’s great, living work of art. The trees have grown up as he planned, the vistas open up just as he intended. This landscape, the world in its natural state, untamed ­ vines, mosses, wildflowers growing as they will, bats darting through the dark, jagged tree trunks split by wind and lightning ­ makes The Clearing Jensen’s great poem, wild and free in its phrasing and emotion, but crafted by a man’s vision, a poem that lends its meaning to each reader’s interpretation, to each reader’s need.

My annual Clearing. Empty the everyday, empty the unbalanced soul, and you are filled with your own truths. I am filled with my own meaning once again and returning to my life I can say, “I am a poet.”

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