2017 Lifetime Achievement Prize in Literature
Although he had been writing poetry for much of his young life, Russell Atkins remembers exactly when he first thought of himself as a professional poet.
“I can say when I actually took myself seriously: 1947,” says the learned nonagenarian, who was 21 years old at the time. “That was when one of my poems first appeared in a magazine called The View, and they had a very European avant-garde sensibility.”
His artistic gifts emerged early, starting with his love of music. He began studying piano at age seven, and he went on to continue his music studies at the Cleveland School of the Arts and the Cleveland Institute of Music. He became an accomplished composer, and wrote an influential essay, “A Psychovisual Perspective for Musical Composition,” that elaborated on the visual aspect of musical and verse composition.
After breaking into The View, Russell began to appear in other literary magazines, including the Western Review and the Beloit Poetry Journal. He befriended fellow Clevelander Langston Hughes, and saw him whenever he returned from New York to visit his family or develop a new play at Karamu House, the first African-American theater in the U.S. Russell was also involved at Karamu, where he ran a poetry workshop for many years.
“Langston played up the word ‘black’ a good deal, and society wasn’t ready yet to hear that,” he recalls. “But he became pretty well-known around the world and edited poetry anthologies for his friends, and I was in those.”
Over the years, he also became good friends with Marianne Moore and playwright LeRoi Jones, who later changed his name to Amiri Baraka. He regularly corresponded with them. Discussing his distinctive style, Russell says he was looking to break away from the English and early American poetry traditions: “Back then, the younger American poets were looking for a broader and different approach. So I began to write poetry about Egyptian typography and things like that, and I went off into visual poetry and did a lot of readings.”
His musical expertise influenced his style, as well, and he once wrote of his work: “I would compose like a painter and write poems like a composer.” He developed a mode of composition he referred to as “phenomenalism,” in which image and sound combinations extend the possibilities of semantic meaning through sonic play and visual forms.
In the early 1950s, one of this poems appeared in The New York Times, a significant accomplishment for a young poet, but he believes it was more to use him as an example of the emerging avant-garde and black poetry movements. “I had begun to use sounds that allowed me to do a lot of things that some people considered really bizarre,” he says. “So I appeared in a publication you wouldn’t normally appear in then.”
A number of his poems were published in chapbooks and small-press books, including A Podium Presentation (1960), Phenomena (1961), Objects (1963), Objects 2 (1964), Heretofore (1968), The Nail, to Be Set to Music (1970), Maleficium (1971), and Whichever (1978). He also wrote two verse plays that he intended more for reading than stage productions: The Abortionist and The Corpse. Both were published in Free Lance, a magazine he had cofounded in 1950, with Adelaide Simon. In 1976, the Cleveland State Poetry Center published his only full-length collection, Here in The.
“Over the decades, Russell’s poetry moved in a direction that is so uniquely his own because he invented a type of poetic diction that is immediately recognizable and playful and a little bit subversive,” says Kevin Prufer, professor of English, the creative writing program at the University of Houston and co-curator of The Unsung Master’s Series, which published a Russell Atkins edition in 2013. “He’s a poet of enormous importance whose work has been so outside the mainstream of American poetry, particularly African-American poetry, that he has only recently received his long overdue recognition.”
Russell holds an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State University (1976) and received an Ohio Arts Council creative fellowship(1978) and a Poets League of Greater Cleveland lifetime literary achievement(1997).