Celebrating the publication of her first book of poetry, 80-year-old Sleepy Hollow author Norma Hass relishes the controversy she creates by using a racy image on the cover. It's actually just a drawing of her head on a sketch of the nude body of Venus, but it still causes problems that other poets like Maya Angelou manage to avoid.
"Unfortunately, your book failed the evaluation due to the front cover image," reads the letter signed by Ken Barnes, a post production associate with Xlibris, the company that helps authors publish and promote their books. "We do not allow nudity or naked breasts on the cover."
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A few copies of "Venus Winked" with the uncensored cover remain on Amazon.com and other places, but Hass' editor, artist and fellow poet Beverley Rose Enright of Streamwood comes to the rescue by drawing hands to cover the breasts and raising a drape to the navel.
"Yeah, she pushes the envelope, but if it's funny, it's wonderful," notes Enright, 71, who has been a fan of Hass' work since 1989, when Enright worked at Gail Borden Public Library in Elgin and edited "The Iron Bridge" quarterly poetry publication. Enright's recently published poetry collection, "Lucky Icons," does include a risqué piece titled "I Won't Have Sex With You in Buckingham Fountain" but consists mostly of poems about nature, religion and family.
Hass' poems, ballads, parodies, limericks, haikus and clerihews don't shy away from sex, politics, religion, pop culture, news events, old age, youth, local potholes, suburban dandelions and other controversies. She uses Greek and Norse mythology, literary works, Latin, French and some phrases not fit for a family newspaper to make her points. From a humorous limerick about an old lady whose thong is hiding beneath adult diapers, to biting observations about conservatives and liberals, to an ode to her granddaughter, "Josephine of Alaska," Hass says whatever is on her mind.
The only child of a Jewish lawyer and his secretary in Newark, N.J., she read "Moby Dick" when she was 10 and realized she loved literature more than math. "I got as far as second-year algebra and was introduced to imaginary numbers, and I couldn't imagine imaginary numbers," she says.
She graduated from South Side High School (now Malcolm X Shabazz High School) in 1950, majored in English and dramatic arts at the New Jersey College For Women (now Douglass Residential College at Rutgers University) and found a job she loved as a children's librarian with the Newark Public Library (still the Newark Public Library).
"I used to chew a pack of Wrigley gum and smoke at the same time," remembers Hass, who immediately spit out her wad of gum to meet library guidelines. Kids routinely asked her for a book on the original tribe of New Jersey, "but there was no such book, so I wrote one," says Hass, who walks on artificial knees and hips with her cane to fetch her 50-year-old copy of "The Lenni Lenape Indians."
Having spurned a boyfriend who wanted her to quit school and get married at age 19, she left college "without a Mrs." and says she was fine with that. "I was ready for a life of happy spinsterhood," she says.
Then her favorite cousin, Richie, saw an advertisement in a local newspaper for a job with a chemical company. He got the job and introduced his librarian cousin to his new boss.
"The ad cost me nine bucks," quips Alvin Hass, 85, the chemical engineer who hired Richie. Alvin told Norma stories about his Korean War-era army service, and the work engineers did to create the night-vision goggles that allowed pilots to bomb the enemy.
"They were really terribly unpleasant things, but the way he told them was very entertaining," Norma Hass says. "Here was a man with a real sense of humor."
They married in 1958 and recently celebrated their 55th wedding anniversary. She gave up her library career and followed her husband when his company transferred him to their Schaumburg plant, which made a variety of plastic products. They lived in Elgin before building a home in Sleepy Hollow. They raised daughters Jamie, who died at 43 of complications at a hospital during an illness, and Lorelei, who lives in Alaska.
Hass wrote a campaign song (which she spontaneously sings from memory), a couple of never-produced plays (including her "Figs and Snakes" production based on Thidius, a messenger in Shakespeare's "Antony and Cleopatra") and frequent poems for "The Iron Bridge." Her clever rhymes, interesting rhythms and quick takes on the news of the day might remind people of Ogden Nash, Enright suggests.
"It just about breaks my heart that I waited so long to help her launch her career," says Enright, who invested oodles of time and money getting "Venus Winked" published. "This is wonderful that I could make this dream come true."
Hass, who turns 81 next month, says she is grateful for the opportunity. She used to sing some of her poems and ballads at Al's Cafe in Elgin, and has a few cassette tapes of those songs. Her wit is still quick, and her will remains strong.
She gave up cigarettes in 1974 after stumbling across the entry for "nicotine" in her encyclopedia while researching the emperor Nero. She went from smoking four packs a day to nothing, but she kept one pack, which lasted her for years.
"One day a year, on the Great American Smokeout, I'd go smoke a cigarette standing in front of some store," Hass says. "I don't like being told what to do."