Russell Atkins: Celebrating the Living Legend at the East Cleveland Public Library - October 25th

This is my own (overly) personal account of the event. I'm sure we all have our own. It is (overly) long as I am including as many of my photos as I can (new camera, sigh) and as much detail for all Russell's dear friends afar who couldn't make it in person.

I went to the Grand Pavilion, where Yaseen AsSami, one of my cohorts,
East Cleveland Public Library
was waiting to help us get Russell down the hall-- where the staff called out good wishes to Russell-- and into the car. We drove up to the East Cleveland Public Library, one of the wonderful old Carnegie libraries that has been kept in tact while added onto with a wonderful modern building that holds the Flewellen Collection and the beautiful and acoustically great Greg L. Reese Performing Arts Center.  The first of many helpful library staff members we encountered met us in the garage to wend Russell's wheelchair up to the Center and on the way in, Russell was greeted warmly and fondly by several friends from his Karamu days, some of them the Friends of the Library, who were handing out programs and staffing the guest book.

Once in the Center, Russell had time to catch up several other friends, including his old buddy, Norman Jordan, who last made the trip up from his current home in West Virginia to see Russell for our 88th birthday party for Russell in February. Norman Jordan and Russell Atkins are two of the few poets still alive whom Langston Hughes included in his classic, The Poetry of the Negro 1946-1970.  

But soon, the program was opened by the library's Executive Director, Sheba Marcus-Bey, who was a helpmate, promoter, and resource for the event. On behalf of the library, she reminded everyone of the length and breadth of his career and presented him with a bouquet of bright orange roses before turning the podium over to Robert E. McDonough, who introduced the program. First he asked everyone who knew Russell personally to raise their hands. The good news is that many who did not know him before the event were in attendance, very young students and friends who came with friends and who later said how very exciting it was to learn of his work. And the other good news-- there was no bad news here-- is that many many attendees did know Russell. Among them, I spotted Ohio poets Jerry Roscoe, Joan Nicholl, Bonnie Jacobson, Peg Swiniarski, Ray McNiece, Mary Chadbourne, and Tim Joyce, who, like me, has moved back home. In addition, the editor of Russell's first and only full-length book of poems, Here In The, was present: Leonard Trawick, was upfront and joined soon by Martin Simon, the widower of Adelaide Simon, who was instrumental in preserving some of Atkins' works, the originals of which were lost or destroyed in the past three years, and their daughter, visiting from Paris.

By then, it was time to get on with the show, so to speak. First, we viewed a
new wonderful documentary film by Janet Century and Daniel Mason, featuring Russell's current editor and newly-appointed literary executor, Kevin Prufer discussing Russell's life and work and reading from Russell's poems. Kevin is the editor of the recent book, Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master which is was available at the reading from  Mac's Backs on Coventry. If you don't have the book yet, please RUN out to Coventry Road and buy it now from Mac's . 

And then, nine of us from onstage each read one of our favorite Atkins poem, beginning with Arcey Harton, who read "Locusts, Crickets, This Summer." 

                                              Arcey was followed by Diane Kendig (that would be me),    
                                                      reading "World'd Too Much (Irritable Song)."  John Donoghue
followed with a reading of "Lakefront Cleveland," and then Chris Franke,  ever Chris Franke, read the poem "Weekend Murder," which we all identify by its first line, "Sex Pants." I have to say that I looked over at Russell during the reading of the poem, and he enjoyed it very much. Norman Jordan spoke movingly of his days with Russell and the Muntu poets, recalling specifically the group's last meeting, disbanded the night the Hough riots began, and he read "Night and  Distant Church." Kevin Prufer
read "School Demolition." And then the inimitable Mary Weems, famous for her memorization and recitation of poetry began by saying how difficult it was to memorize Russell's poems, followed by her perfectly memorized rendition of "Backyard" and "Spring's Generation Gap." The reading finished with two grown men who were once recalcitrant young adults in Russell's Muntu poets workshop, Mutawaf Shaheed and Yaseen AsSami. (And now many years later, they participate in a workshop that Bob McDonough leads, that has

published their poems, linked at their names.)  Shaheed spoke of his difficult youthful self and recalled the last night of the Muntu poets, which met at his parents' home, before he read, "Old Man Carrying a Bible in a High Crime Area." Yaseen, who has written that "Russell was a very good mentor, and being involved with Muntu gave me the confidence and courage to move forward with my writing," finished the reading with the poem "Transit."

The next act on the agenda was the re-presentation of an honorary doctorate from Cleveland State University. Originally presented to Russell in 1976, the document was lost or destroyed, along with other important papers that are documented by Kevin Prufer in his introduction to Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American

Bob McDonough was instrumental is getting the university to re-issue the doctorate, and David Larson, Interim Chair of the English Department was on hand to present the new sheepskin. Russell was thrilled, as he has really grieved the loss of the document, which was and now is, dear to him. 

A lively Q-A followed that included some boys asking intent questions, such as, who was the first poet Russell really liked when he was young? (A: Shelley, at first, for his references to crystal especially). 

The program ended with the audience reading in chorus Russell's poem, "Idyll." The formal program, that is. The informal reception following went on for another hour and a half of eating, talking, and enjoying the company of poets and friends and poet friends, and especially our friend, the poet, editor, and composer, Russell Atkins. 
R.A. with Honorary Doctorate

Photos, top to bottom: Norman Jordan and Russell (John Donoghue, background), Sheba Marcus-Bey, Leonard Trawick, Kevin Prufer, Arcey Harton, John Donoghue, Chris Franke, Mary Weems, Shaheed Mutawaf and Yaseen AsSami. And more: 


Nine readers (L to R): Arcey Harton, Chris Franke, Diane Kendig, John Donoghue, Mary Weems, Kevin Prufer, Norm Jordan, Shaheed Mutawaf, and Yaseen AsSami

My heartfelt thanks to the Fifth Friend of Russell, Sheba Marcus-Bey and her wonderful staff, including Sara Phillips who did the programs and PR, the many guys who set up and shlepped stuff, and the Friends of the Library who served some great food that we have the library to thank for. Thanks to the 125 people who came out for the event on a beautiful Cleveland Saturday when you all could have been raking leaves. Thanks to Paul Beauvais for these photos and all his help. Namaste to the Four Friends of Russell:  now our labors (on this one) are all ended.


Visiting the Russell Atkins Archives in Atlanta


On 5 March 2015, the remaining archives of Russell which have been found to date, were donated to the Woodruff Library, through the auspices of Emory University. These include four pieces of music that Russell created (two operas, an orchestra piece, and a piano piece) and several books and other artifacts. This terrific collection had been saved by Martin and Adelaide Simon, and Russell and his friends--as well as history-- remain grateful to them for preserving this work. We are also grateful to Kevin Smith and Mark Ickes of PPI Gramphics in Canton, Ohio who made scanners available so that we could make copies of the work for Russell himself to keep and study.  

To date, we cannot find any of the seven boxes of materials which Russell had in his previous apartments. We hope against hope that perhaps one of them can be found.


The Four Friends of Russell (Shaheed, Yaseen, Bob, and I) had been reminiscing with Russell for the past nine months of visits, often about some archive of his work that his friend Caspar Jordan had put together somewhere, but Russell has so many stories and names involving the olden days of the Cleveland poetry scene that the details wash over me. So as I was preparing to visit a sick friend in Atlanta, it took Shaheed to prod me with, "Hey, that's where Russell's archives are. Why don't you check them out?" And he showed me a shiny brochure with pictures of a beautiful new building, the Robert W. Woodruff Library, named after the donor who gave the beverage-fueled money to create this great repository. It is the library for four area universities and the archives for much Black History and culture in the U.S.

I called ahead and made an appointment with one of the archives attendants, Mr. Shabazz, who proved to be an incredibly helpful guide on my visit the following week, beginning with his careful directions on how to thread my way up to the archives past the friendly guard, past the coffee bar, and through the snazzily dressed students studying everywhere. 

Once in the Archives Research Center of the library, Shabazz instructed me in storing my things in the digital lockers except my laptop, paper, and the sharpened "Atlanta Universtiy Center" pencils he gave me, one of which I have kept. If you'd like to see what materials are in the Russell Atkins archives, type Atkins' name in the "Find what you're looking for" box


-then click on "Russell Atkins in archival collection," 
-then  click on "View Finding Aid"

and you will see the list of everything I could see: seven boxes of materials, most containing about 90 folders of documents.  

I only had two hours, and I decided to spend most of it on the box of letters, as Russell is grieving (and agrieved, rightfully so) about the many letters he had saved over the years, only to have them destroyed while he was hospitalized in 2013. There were actually two boxes of letters in the archives. There were many from Langston Hughes, including several postcards. My favorite of all was a handmade Christmas postcard with the holiday message hand-typed and decorated with little green and red pencil doodles and Hughes' gorgeous signature:

There were personal letters from friends with gossipy, newsy stuff that Russell was asked not to repeat and utterly professional letters. There is a whole section for correspondence of friends like Adelaide Simon and  Norman Jordan. I was allowed to have photocopied 10% of the collection, but I took just 12 pages.

One of those is a flyer for A Tribute to Jim Lowell, an anthology to raise money for the Asphodel Book Shop owner who was arrested for possessing and distributing "obscene literature," which was to say, the poetry of d.a. levy, one of the contributers to the anthology, in addition to Russell Atkins (the first name on the list, thanks to alphabetical order), Ferlinghetti, Kent Taylor, Bukowski, Denise Levertov, Robert Lowell, and many other local people, for whom signing one's name was not easy during those times of Cleveland police prosecution of poets. Ginsberg's name is not on the list, but when he visited Cleveland in the 1980s, we walked around the CWRU area of Euclid together, and he recalled walking the streets in protest over the Levy arrests, the brutality of the police then, like none he had ever seen in his many encounters with police. It struck me in that moment that the Russell Atkins archives are not only the a record of one poet's life and work but also of one city's, since Cleveland is where he spent his whole life.

Another of the more humorous letters reminded me of that, too,  a letter from then- Poets League President, John Gabel, narrating the results of the "Poetry on the Bus" contest, which Atkins had been one of the judges for. It seems that the three judges didn't agree on many of the entries, so Gabel--statistician to the bone--had devised a point-system to arrive at 12 winners, which he painstakingly describes to Atkins, outlining the numerical fairness of the venture. I think I was one of the winners that year, and I don't even want to know.  

And there are letters in the collection from other Cleveland poets, including Chris Franke, Cy Dostal, and Robert McGovern, plus five letters from Randall Dudley, one from CSU President Walter Waetjen about Russell's upcoming honorary doctorate. And there were letters from Russell, too.

Since I didn't have much time left, I made a note on the box of "Writing About" Atkins, including a 1964 Saturday Review article, "Ten from Cleveland" and a 1968  New York Times Literary Supplement article that I plan to look up elsewhere since they are elsewhere, unlike many of the items in the boxes which are nowhere else but these boxes in Atlanta.   

I actually felt tingles, viewing these locally, nationally, literarily, and culturally significant documents myself, but I felt even wilder, happier, the day Bob and I met with Russell two weeks later, and we shared with him the copies and originals of documents we have managed to unearth the past five months and to carry to him that day. When Russell left his apartment for the last time, not knowing it was the last time, in 2013, he was told he would be brought back to get his boxes. He was not, and the boxes were destroyed when he was taken to his current place in the nursing home. He has told us over and over that losing his correspondences and and the honorary doctorate, his typewriter and all his editorial work was devastating to him.

In addition to the archives carefully assembled in Atlanta by his librarian friend Caspar Jordan, Bob and I were aided in the search by

***Cleveland State University Registrar Kevin Neal who helped us replace the honorary degree from C..S.U. and English Department Chair,
***Martin Simon, widower of Adelaide Simon, who preserved brochures, books, clippings, programs and musical scores (including a 200-page opera Russell composed)

***Leonard Trawick, the editor of Russell's 1976 book Here in the, who led us to Martin Simon

***Kevin Prufer, the editor of Russell's most recent book, Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master

***Mutaawaf Shaheed and Yaseen AsSami, who since January have visited Russell regularly, who have helped to keep his spirits up, and who got me to the archives with reminders and encouragement.  

Many thanks, too, to Peter Farranto, who drove me there. The prospect of driving in Atlanta is right at the bottom of my list with driving in Boston, Managua, and Mexico City.


In April, for National Poetry Month, I created a blog for the Cuyahoga County Public Library, each day featuring an Ohio poet's poem (photo and bio), a prompt, and with the help of librarian reader extraordinaire, Laurie Kincer. Originally, the blog included two weekly "Forepoets." Inspired by Wompo (Women's Poetry Listserv), which has an occasional series called "Foremothers," I researched nine Northeast Ohio "Forepoets," some of whom I knew personally, some only legendarily. One was a surprise to me (Vachel Lindsay: he went to college here--who knew? The Hiram crew.)  In all cases, I tried to find out something new to surprise myself.

That part of the blog got left on the cutting room floor. But remember what Sylvia Plath said about how for a writer, it's all grist for the mill. I save those pieces to patch in here. I imparted four of those on my own blog in April, then lost steam. Today, six months post- (and pre-) National Poetry Month, I impart the last five: Barbara Angell, Vachel Lindsay, David Citino, Cy Dostal, and Kenneth Patchen, along with the links to those previous four.

Alberta Turner 

Daniel Thompson

Hart Crane

Langston Hughes