Atkins, Russell 1926–
Russell Atkins 1926–
Working for most of his life in his native Cleveland, Ohio, far from traditional centers of literary experimentation and higher learning, writer Russell Atkins anticipated or independently arrived at several of the major developments of the late twentieth century in poetry, drama, and literary theory. Experimental styles such as concrete poetry and ideas such as deconstruction were represented in Atkins’s writings, and he was also well ahead of his time in creating stage dramas that used violent or intentionally disturbing themes in an abstract, unsentimental way. Many of Atkins’s writings were published in the Cleveland journal Free Lance, which he co-founded and which may have been the first African-American-owned literary magazine in the United States.
Born on February 25, 1926, in Cleveland, Atkins learned to play the piano from his mother. He would write music throughout his life, and music always played an important role in his ideas. Atkins started writing at a young age. By age 13 he had won poetry contests and had written plays for puppets he had made. In high school, he read classic works of literature and philosophy on his own and continued to write poetry. His first published poem appeared in his 1944 high school yearbook.
Atkins was partially self-taught as a poet, sometimes saying that he was avant-garde (cutting-edge) before he knew there was such a thing. But he was also impressed, as a high school student, by the works of poets Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore, dense works brimming with literary references that were mostly the province of academic specialists. The works of these so-called Imagist poets featured unrhymed, nonlinear texts, linguistic experimentation, and a tendency to focus on terse, fleeting evocations of a single image or concept. All these traits would show up in Atkins’s poetry, but they were augmented by ideas that were purely his. From a very early age, Atkins went his own way.
Atkins also attended the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art) during his last year of high school, moving on to the Cleveland Institute of Music the following year. He enrolled at Cleveland College but left for a stint in the military and never finished his degree. Seeking out education in bits and pieces as he felt he needed it, he took classes at the Cleveland Music School Settlement and at the city’s Karamu Theatre. Atkins would later study musical composition privately (from 1950 to 1954, with J. Harold Brown) and attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 1953 and 1954, but his only formal higher education degree is an honorary Ph.D. bestowed by Cleveland State University in 1976. He never stopped educating himself in literature, literary theory, and music, however, and his writings of later years showed a keen interest in contemporary intellectual developments.
Atkins took an unconventional route to success. The first publications of his poetry to reach national audiences came after he corresponded directly with several famous poets and other writers who were known to be
At a Glance…
Born on February 25, 1926, in Cleveland, OH; son of Perry Kelly and Mamie Atkins, Education: Attended Cleveland School of Art (now Cleveland Institute of Art), 1943-44; attended Cleveland Institute of Music, 1944-45; attended Cleveland College; private music composition study, 1950-54. Military service: Served in U.S. military, late 1940s.
Career: Independent poet, composer, and critic, 1950-; Free Lance magazine, Cleveland, cofounder and editor, 1950-79; Sutphen School of Music, Cleveland, publicity manager and assistant to director, 1957-60; Poets’ and Lecturers’ Alliance, lecturer, T963-65; Karamu House, writing instructor, 1972-86; Cuyahoga Community College, writeMn-residence, 1973; Ohio Program in the Humanities, instructor, 1978.
Selected memberships: Poets’ League of Greater Cleveland (served on Board of Trustees); Ohio Arts Council, member, literary advisory panel, 1973-76; Coordinating Councilof Literary Magazines of National Endowment for the Arts, member; Artists-tn-Schools programs, Ohio Arts Council and National Endowment for the Arts, member, 1973-.
Selected awards: Cleveland State University, honorary PhD, 1976; individual artist grant, Ohio Arts Council, 1978.
Address: Home —Cleveland, OH.
sympathetic to creative experimenters. These included the poet Edith Sitwell and the longtime white taste-maker of African-American literature, Carl Van Vechten. Atkins’s poems began to appear in such publications as View and Experiment starting in 1947. In 1951 one of his works appeared in the New York Times.
By that time, Atkins had characteristically decided that he could provide a forum for his own ideas. With Caspar L. Jordan he founded Free Lance, a Cleveland-based magazine devoted to avant-garde developments in writing, in 1950. The by then legendary black poet Langston Hughes wrote an introduction for the magazine’s first issue. Word of Atkins’s poetry quickly spread within the community of readers interested in literary experiments, and Free Lance gained a national and even worldwide readership. Printed in England, the magazine was distributed in such countries as Ireland, France, Denmark, Sweden, and Australia.
Atkins’s poems from the first part of his career were typically short and concerned with a single image. They tended to force language to its limits, shortening words into contractions to such a degree that it might be unclear what the original word was, or making nouns into verbs in an unconventional way. In his poem “Rehabilitation Building Entrance,” Atkins described an injured person entering the building this way: “to sight, drastic’d its/lo and behold alack’d/where were both should be legs?”
Atkins’s poetry was often difficult to read; the poet, in fact, was reported to have told a friend that he wanted it to be almost incomprehensible. Yet striking images often leapt out of his works, guiding the interested reader deeper into his intriguing use of language. Some of his poems were more accessible. “Probability and Birds in the Yard” described the tense interaction of a cat, a rodent, and a bird in a yard, concluding with the delightful observation that “dogs are random.”
Another enigmatic but highly concise technique he used was to include hidden words in his poems, or words that were formed by running other words together. In “Lisbon” (1953), Atkins described “multituDes per at En/trance of horror/othe Rush.” Atkins was also one of the first practitioners of what became known as concrete poetry—poetry in which text was arranged visually on the page in such a way as to carry part of the meaning.
For nearly 30 years, Atkins earned a living largely from his writing and from his editorship of Free Lance. Although he worked largely in isolation, he sometimes won grants and fellowships; in 1956 he attended the prestigious Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont. From time to time he took other jobs on the side. From 1957 to 1960 he was publicity manager and assistant to the director at Cleveland’s Sutphen School of Music. From 1963 to 1965 he was a lecturer at the Poets’ and Lecturers’ Alliance. By that time, Atkins had published four full-length books of poetry: Podium Presentation (1960), Phenomena (1961), Objects (1963), and Objects 2 (also 1963). He had also begun to strike out in new directions as a writer.
Few of Atkins’s poems dealt with specifically African-American themes, but he sometimes discussed ideas of education and knowledge as they pertained to minority groups in a sequence of highly theoretical writings that were published beginning in the late 1950s. Many of them appeared in Free Lance. Atkins touched on various topics in these articles, which seethed with abstract diagrams and algebraic equations. His educational theories challenged the prevailing civil rights-era assumption that minority progress depended on access to the institutions of the dominant group, arguing instead (as quoted in Diacritics) that “’liberal’ and technological education, especially today, additively, produce destructive might that maintains and increases power that imposes and controls values.” Some of his “nationalist phenomenalist” ideas anticipated those of black radicals of the 1960s, who searched for forms of education that would grow organically from oppressed communities.
Atkins also wrote about literary criticism and about music, attempting to link musical listening to what he called his “psychovisual” theory of perception, which had some affinities to the ideas of Austrian Gestalt psychologists from earlier in the century. Once again, Atkins’s writings attracted attention from some of Europe’s leading musical thinkers but remained almost unknown in the U.S. Well before the term became a buzzword in academic circles, Atkins used the word “deconstruction” to describe (as quoted in Diacritics) “the taking apart of objects as Ideas,” the breaking-down of an existing idea that an artist or creative thinker might engage in as part of the process of making something new. Atkins’s use of term was not identical to the usages of later European thinkers, but it did bear some similarities to those.
More familiar to the American public, although by no means famous, were Atkins’s plays, some of which, like the plays of T.S. Eliot, were written in unrhymed poetry. Yet again, Atkins was well ahead of his time. The late 1960s would see the rise of violent, intentionally disturbing subject matter in American theater and the importation from Europe of the so-called “theatre of the absurd,” which featured abstract dramatic realizations of ideas about the meaning, or meaninglessness, of life. Atkins anticipated both with his 1963 plays The Abortionist and The Corpse. The latter play enacted the annual visits of a woman to her husband’s tomb so that she can observe the decay of his body. Around this same time Atkins wrote another play, The Exoneration, that dealt with police brutality and featured much more graphic language than was permissible in the early 1960s. The play was performed at the Karamu Theater in 1973. Maleficium, Atkins’s 1971 volume of short stories, presented 20 brief portraits of characters with some kind of violence in their natures.
Although never well known, Atkins became a familiar figure in Cleveland’s arts scene in the later years of his life. He worked as a writing instructor at the city’s Karamu House arts center from 1972 to 1986, taught writing in several other programs, and received a financial grant from the Ohio Arts Council in 1978. For a time he served on a National Endowment for the Arts advisory board. Atkins published two more volumes of poetry in the 1970s: Here in The (1976) and Whichever (1978), plus the privately printed Juxtapositions: A Manifesto (1991). By the 1990s, Atkins’s poetry was appearing regularly in new anthologies, and Diacritics published an article about his theoretical ideas in 1996. His music and many of his writings, however, remained unexplored by scholars. From time to time he contributed a relatively accessible poem to the Cleveland Plain Dealer newspaper or another Ohio publication.
Atkins was given a Lifetime Literary Achievement award by Cleveland’s Poets’ League in 1997. The poetry revival of the 1990s was in full swing, and Atkins was enthused by the crowd of 750 that turned out for the event at which the award was made. “When I started, a hundred people at an event would be enormous. I never, never imagined this,” he told the Plain Dealer. As of the early 2000s he was reported to be revising a piano composition called Spyrytuals and working on a new book of poetry.
A Podium Presentation, Poetry Seminar Press, 1960. Phenomena, Free Lance Poets and Prose Workshop, Wilberforce University, 1961.
Objects, Hearse Press, 1963.
Heretofore, Paul Breman (London, England), 1968.
Presentations, Podium Press, 1969.
Here in The, Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1976.
Whichever, Free Lance Press, 1978.
Juxtapositions: A Manifesto, 1991.
A Psychovisual Perspective for “Musical” Composition (theory of musical aesthetics), Free Lance Press, 1958.
Two by Atkins: The Abortionist and The Corpse: Two Poetic Dramas to Be Set to Music (plays), Free Lance Press, 1963.
Maleficium (short stories), Free Lance Press, 1971.
Harris, Trudier, ed., Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 41: Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Gale, 1985.
King, Woodie, ed., The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Howard University Press, 1975.
Diacritics, Fall-Winter 1996, p. 86.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), April 21, 1997, p. D7; November 2, 1997, p. 6.
Biography Resource Center, www.galenet.galegroup.com/servlet/BioRC (April 7, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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