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A Cultural Icon Revisited: Poet Russell Atkins Honored At East Cleveland Public Library

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Well-wishers share memories with Russell Atkins (seated). Photo credit: Rodney Brown

Poet Russell Atkins, his hair a white halo, his torso tucked into a wheelchair, rolled onto the stage of the East Cleveland Public Library, where he silently accepted a dozen orange roses and the accolades of a crowd.

More than a hundred well-wishers gathered on a sunlit fall afternoon to honor a poet whom Langston Hughes and Marianne Moore considered a peer. “As a community, as a collective, we can tell Russell Atkins, ‘job well done,’” said Sheba Marcus-Bey, the library’s executive director, as applause swelling around her. “He stood his ground as an artist and allowed us here in Cleveland to get on the literary map.”

Atkins worked long decades in Cleveland as a composer, a musical theorist, and a poet who co-founded Free Lance, one of the oldest black-owned literary magazines, in 1950.

At 89, Atkins looked happy to see old friends. Wearing a slight smile, he answered a smattering of audience questions. Asked if he might write again, Atkins said, “I want the poetry I write to be different, something else. I’ll have to think of it first.”

A dignitary from Cleveland State University re-presented Atkins’ honorary doctorate, which had been lost, and an arc of friends stood near him on stage to take turns reading exemplars of his avant-garde poetry.

“It might be 60 years after the fact,” Marcus-Bey said stoutly, “but we are right on time.” Poet Kevin Prufer, a University of Houston professor, traveled from Texas to help honor the subject of his book, “Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master.” It published last year in the Unsung Masters series of Pleiades Press.

Prufer, 45, has agreed to become Atkin’s literary executor and Emory University in Atlanta will be home to Atkins’ remaining papers. Tragically, six boxes—manuscripts, letters and musical composition scores—were sent to a landfill last year when Atkins was hospitalized, Prufer said. A few letters from Langston Hughes and Marianne Moore do remain, including one from Moore describing how she recited some of Atkins’ experimental verse on New York radio.

“I resist the notion that Russell Atkins was this strange hermit poet,” said Prufer, who grew up in Cleveland Heights. “He was in the world. I do think poetry has caught up with Russell Atkins, this idea that poetry can enact the thinking mind.”

In a short documentary film, Prufer compared Atkins to William Shakespeare in his inventiveness with language. Poet Mary E. Weems declared she had long been mesmerized by him.

A quartet of admirers—Yassen Assami, Robert McDonough, Diane Kendig, and Mutawaf Shaheed—approached Marcus-Bey in July about honoring their friend. 

“I was a student of Russell Atkins for 35 years,” said Shaheed, even when, as a young man, he was unaware of it. “He was different from the rest of us. We were wild and arrogant and he was very patient.” Assami compared Atkins’ work to that of Thelonious Monk on an elevator—very tight. McDonough said it took courage to read Atkins’ challenging, beautiful poems in front of him.

Kendig pointed out that Norman Jordan, who had traveled from West Virginia to honor his old friend, and Atkins were two of the few poets still alive whom Langston Hughes included in his classic, “The Poetry of the Negro 1946-1970.”

Members of the audience joined voices to read a 13-line Atkins poem “Idyll,” published in 1976:

snow brings restraint
and takes you by the arm:
snow’s religious morals over
the landscape relaxes
with a minister’s smile
and it’s hands folded
across a great belly

unlike authority
elsewhere, snow will
not keep a pair
of handcuffs

snow hates the body
and fashion

“He is a quiet, humble, unassuming genius,” Marcus-Bey said. “We are reaffirming his cultural legacy.”

 

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