RUSSELL ATKINS: A Cautionary Tale for Aging Poets and Others

This is the story of how I re-encountered my friend, the poet Russell Atkins in December of 2013. Some people feared that sharing the story would embarrass him. However, Russell, who remains angry, resigned, and unembarrassed, is fine with my telling it. Because I was gone from the area nearly 25 years, my account is composed of hearsay as well as facts, but at its best (which is to say, worst) the tale clearly depicts another case of the bad treatment of the elderly in America.

In December of 2013, Bob McDonough,  a poet friend from my Cleveland days who has now relocated to upstate New York, called to ask if I knew where Russell Atkins was. "Honestly," I replied, "I thought he had died by now. Is he still around? How great! Where is he?"

To be honest, I had lost track of Russell once I had to leave my bohemian, adjunct, shoestring, no-health-insurance life in Cleveland to make a living and  a life in Findlay, Ohio. I lost track of a lot of Northeast Ohio friends then and in my subsequent move to the Boston area for over a decade. But at the time Bob called, I was back in the area and trying to look people up again. 

Where Russell was was the operable question. Bob was reading a new book out by Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis, wherein the authors in their introductory essay mentioned visiting Russell in Fenway Manor, housing for disabled and senior citizens near University Circle. The authors also mentioned seeing many boxes of written material that Russell was keeping there-- manuscripts, musical compositions, drafts upon drafts of poems, copies of journals and other publications, and letters from the likes Langston Hughes, Marianne Moore, and others: 

"...from the folded up drafts of poems fell a series of letters to Russell Atkins from Langston Hughes, perhaps a dozen written over many years, some quite lengthy....A little pile of neatly typed letters from Marianne Moore is next. These offer Atkins bits of advice...." (from Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master edited by Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis.)

Bob told me that two of Russell's former poetry students from the 1960s, Mutawaf Shaheed and Yaseen AsSami, who were now members of Bob's poetry workshop, had tried to visit Russell in Fenway Manor, but they could not  find anyone who could tell them where Russell was, nor could they even get into the building. 

The four of us kept phoning around and had decided we would show up again  at Fenway Manor to try to get in again, when we learned that Russell was now living in The Grande Pavilion in Bedford, and we all four met up with Russell there. In conversation about where he had been and where we had been, we found Russell most upset about losing those boxes from his apartment.  According to him, while in his apartment, he had fallen, was sent to the hospital, and after a time in the hospital, asked to go back to his apartment. He believes that he was told he would be taken back, and instead, he was driven directly to The Grande, and never saw his boxes again nor anything from his apartment. He was living in The Grande with no paper, no books, none of his own personal effects whatsoever.

I thought I would get right on this concern of his because the boxes had to be somewhere; really, no one would destroy boxes with primary manuscripts, right? Letters from Langston Hughes, for example. I have seen a letter online for a one-page, signed letter from Hughes selling for $3000. If not the literary value, if nothing else, people would realize the monetary value of these materials. So I set to work trying to find the boxes, while the four of us (Shaheed, Yaseen, Bob, and I), whom I refer to as "The Four Friends of Russell" tried to cheer him up personally and recognize him professionally. For him personally we planned a birthday party for his 88th birthday at the end of February 2014 and then, a celebration of the new book at the East Cleveland Library in February 2014.

I first called Russell's court-appointed guardian. She informed me that Russell had had another court-appointed guardian before her. It seems that years ago, Russell had been coerced-- or strongly encouraged-- by state agencies to sell his house and go into senior housing, based on the grounds that he was senile and suffering from dementia.  (These grounds are ones which "The Four Friends" continue to argue on his behalf. Russell, like many of us past 60, often has difficulty recalling the precise word for the sentence, and his health is failing, but many of the behaviors which the state calls senility, we call his genius. Russell was never a person to say and do things the way everyone else does, and we are fine with that. But state agencies see "difference" as "disability," as "dementia," as "senility.") 

A friend of Russell's from the house sale days tells me that she and several neighbors strongly advised him against the sale because it would mean signing everything over to a court-appointed guardian and a law firm. Russell himself felt he had no choice and that the house sales would give him a nest egg to live out his senior days. Except, it seems, the egg didn't last very long. The guardian and a state-appointed lawyer went through the money very fast. How much and how fast, I don't know for sure, but fast enough that the guardian was hauled into court, chastised by the judge, and the guardianship was handed over to Russell's second and current guardian. Nothing happened to the lawyer or his firm.

Russell had remembered voicing his concern about the boxes to the first guardian, who said she would have her son take them and put them in safe-keeping. But did she? No one knows, and though Bob and I tried to call her multiple times at her office as a court-appointed guardian-- an office she still held and for all I know, still does-- we got no answer from the messages we left on her answering machine. 

I called Second Guardian one day and had a long conversation with her about how Russell had gotten to where he was. She told me the story about the first guardian, about the tearful scene when the first guardian was chastised in court and her pleading sobs that she liked Russell and would never do anything to harm him and wanted to remain his guardian. Second Guardian seemed very displeased with the treatment Russell had received at the hands of her predecessor. 

"Well, what about the boxes of his papers?" I asked. "He is very concerned about those. Do you know where they are?"

"Oh, yes. I had them destroyed."

What. Wait. "Why on earth?"

"The place had bedbugs."  

"How many boxes did you see? Were they all there? Five? Seven?"

"I went to the doorway, looked around, told them to just destroy everything."

She was not interested in discussing this any further. She had no idea how many. She had barely looked. Bedbugs yuck. 

Okay, bedbugs yuck, but they die if you load the papers up in plastic bins and put them in cold storage. Many many apartment dwellers in Cleveland faced that chore in the past three years, and not just those in the Fenway. (A friend of mine in a nice building in a far eastern suburb of Cleveland went, uh, buggy, trying to deal with the problem and went the cold storage route. She managed to save her stuff and kill all the bedbugs.) The second guardian just did not feel it was in her purview to rescue anything. She does not seem to realize that what she destroyed was more important to Russell than the money the first guardian was dimissed for misappropriating. And she does not want to realize. Others do not blame her. I do. And I blame the whole court-appointed guardian machine. For this case and several more. 

Questions remained: did the first guardian save any of the boxes? Did the Fenway management really destroy the boxes, or could they be sitting moldering in the basement there?  Is that wishful thinking?

At some point, we gave up on these questions and went to work on finding copies of what was left in the world for certain. Not the letters. Adelaide Simon, a dear friend of Russell's, had saved bound photocopies of several of Russell's musical compositions, brochures, and clippings, and her widow Martin Simon brought them out of storage in his senior residency and handed them over to me. Kevin Smith of PPI Graphics in Canton, Ohio donated free digitizing of the manuscripts for safe-keeping. We gave copies to Russell and sent the "originals" (which are, after all not originals but second generations) to the Russell Atkins archives in Atlanta.

In the meantime, Bob has found most of Russell's poems, published and unpublished, and is creating a "Russell Atkins, Complete Poetry" to give to Russell. It's a large tome and a surprise and he doesn't go on the internet, so mum.

Russell has been grateful for what we have cobbled together while he mourns what has been lost. Eerily, Kevin Prufer saw this possibility. He ended his introductory essay to the 2013 book:

"...It pains us to think that so much of Russell Atkins' material ...are piled in dilapidated boxes and stacked in a closet in a subsidized apartment where even Mr. Atkins himself is unable to access them...and we are saddened by the realization that Russell Atkins now seems to have no family and only limited contacts with former friends who might see to his papers' preservation. It would trouble the world of the arts if the uncollected work of this already marginalized poet and musician were lost to future generations." (Russell Atkins, ed. Prufer and Dumanis).

I for one remain very troubled by how this has all gone down and continues to go down. It is very sad to those of us in the arts that those who were charged with taking care of Russell did not see the genius and history in him and his life that we see. If you are in the arts and are troubled by this loss, I hope you will say something. Anything. To anyone. Say it to me. To Russell. To the world.

However, I cannot say I am surprised, seeing how the elderly who were model judges, teachers, parents, and other wonderful people are treated by this system. It's not just the artists who are mistreated. It can be anyone who is old. It may be better if the elder has lots of money or, according to Atul Gawande (in Being Mortal), if they have one good daughter, but those are no guarantees in the U.S. with its emphasis on the youth culture, its fear of aging and the aged.

For Russell, for now, the Four Friends have expanded to add Kevin Prufer whom Russell has named his literary executor (though the legal paperwork isn't done yet) as the Fifth Friend, and alliteration be damned, many many friends who are checking in, sending him mail, phoning him, trying to stay in the touch we all had fallen out of -- Lewis Turco, Kent Taylor, Norm Jordan, and many many others, near Cleveland and afar. Best of all, Shaheed and Yaseen check in nearly weekly in person. Bob runs interference with the system (and thus keeps me from running like a screaming mimi at the system). And I, though not alone, remain to tell you.