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.



  1. Thanks diane for this wonderful account. Russell looks positively beaming on this long awaited day. Delighted at the turnout, esp. youngsters(anyone less than 50)

  2. Looks like it was a hugely successful event. Congrats and thanks for the detailed summary.