“Don’t overdo it. Don’t say it too often. Don’t be trite.” Middleton poet Alice D’Alessio might not have begun writing poetry if she hadn’t taken one of Norbert Blei’s writing classes at The Clearing Folk School. She’s come full-circle, acting as judge for this year’s Norbert Blei Poetry Award, which has its submission deadline on July 21. The award, administered by Write On, Door County, honors the late Door County poet, writer and teacher, famous for his coverage of the “folk heroes” of Door County.
Entrants for the award may submit up to three original, unpublished poems for consideration. The winner of the prize will be awarded a small cash prize and complimentary registration at the Washington Island Literary Festival, Sept. 22-24. The winning poet will also be invited to read their poem at the festival.
Author of four books, D’Alessio has won numerous prizes for literature, including this year’s Paul Gruchow Essay Contest for her essay “Tending the Valley,” an intimate piece detailing the conservation efforts by herself and her husband on their property in southwest Wisconsin, evoking the iconic Wisconsin nature writer Aldo Leopold.
Her first book of poetry, A Blessing of Trees, was published by Norb Blei’s publishing company, Cross+Roads. It won the Posner Book-Length Poetry Award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers in 2004.
D’Alessio remembers Blei fondly for his tutelage and guidance through the world of writing.
“Norb Blei made me a poet,” she said. She had grown up dreaming of being a fiction writer, of “writing the next great American novel.”
But when Blei assigned poetry writing to their class, a new door opened for D’Alessio, who retired from a writing career to pursue her poetry, fiction and nonfiction writing, which often takes environmentalism as its theme.
Blei’s instruction had a profound impact on her. As she spoke of Blei’s rigorous yet encouraging editing, D’Alessio detailed those simple guidelines for good writing. Here they are, for those who would listen.
“A fresh metaphor is worth a lot.” Use of old metaphors or overused phrases disengages your reader. Take advantage of every opportunity to use fresh and original language.
“There’s a certain way that you should put the words together…you have to find the right word for the right spot.” Careful crafting makes sure your prose sounds right.
“It has to touch the reader in some place…it can’t just be the writer prescribing something. If the reader would read a poem and something about it caused them to say, ‘aha!’ or, you know, wake them up, that is what you’re looking for.” Blei’s writing is to this day infamous for its dissidence concerning the burgeoning development in Door County that catered to the tourist industry. Whether you agree with him or not, Blei’s writing started the dialogue about something he was passionate about. Make sure you write something that will further the conversation about whatever is dear to you.
Besides these key aspects of construction and style, D’Alessio has embraced changing times and the subject matter and tone of today’s literature.
“Poetry changes over every generation,” she said. “They’re [modern poets] trying to do something fresh and original, and, like it or not, we have to pay attention to it.”
Why submit something to this event? According to D’Alessio, peer review is an essential part of a writer’s personal development.
“Having a critique group – especially one with a marvelous teacher – is incredibly invaluable,” she said. “It’s like finding a good tennis partner. You want someone just a little better than you are…people that are not afraid to critique and are not afraid to take criticism [themselves]. That is so important.”
The most crucial element to all of this, D’Alessio said, is encouraging people to write. That was what Norb Blei did in all his years at The Clearing so well, and that is what D’Alessio hopes will come about with this contest.
“There are lots and lots of good poets out there, but there’s always room for one more.”
Alice D’Alessio lives in Middleton, Wis. with her husband, Laird. For more information on the Norb Blei Poetry Award, visit writeondoorcounty.org. For more on D’Alessio, visit bookthatpoet.com/poets/dalessio.html.