(from the Ohio Poetry Association Annual meeting, July 8, 2017:
I am reading today from In The Company of Russell Atkins: A Celebration of His Friends on His 90th Birthday, a collection of the friends' memoirs and poems. I had planned to read only the poems for this Ohio Poetry Association, but decided that the prose passages reveal much of value about friendships among poets, certainly appropriate for this group.)
When I came to Cleveland in 1976, I had been lonely to the point of suicidal for four years. I mean this quite literally. At least once, I had tried to kill myself and failed, but I thought about the possibility, felt the attraction to committing the act, on and off for a long time. Then in 1975, I learned about the poetry community in Cleveland, and I moved there and moved on, surrounded by the workshops, readings, and camaraderie in poetry that I found there.
I have often said that poetry saved my life, and it did, but if poetry saved my life, poets made it worth living.
One of those poets was Russell Atkins, though I barely knew him. He was older, male, an African-American who cautioned me as a white woman against my going into his neighborhood. But I had a car and he didn’t, which is how we got to know each other, and that is how I memorialize our friendship in the anthology:
I first met Atkins in the mid-1970s while attending the C.S.U. poetry workshop in Cleveland. He barely spoke except on our rides home in Leonard Trawick’s yellow VW Bug, or, later, in my old red Granada, and when he did, he just cracked me up with his acerbic humor and his breathtaking, right-on honesty. So I looked up and read Here In The, and there, too, I found him darkly funny, deeply observant, wonderfully quirky. After a decade, I had to leave Cleveland, and I lost track of Russell, as did my old friend in poetry Bob McDonough, one of Russell’s biggest fans. Years later, together with Shaheed and Yaseen, we went looking for Russell and we found him, with the help of the Michael Dumanis and Kevin Prufer’s book, Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master. Since then, we four have worked on several projects with Russell, who still makes me laugh, still wows me with his latest words.
Here is another passage of remembrance by the poet John Gabel, who died last fall in his 90s. As John notes, he began writing poetry late in life, when he was a very successful actuary. It was his success as a businessman which brought some organization to the disorganized mass of Cleveland poets:
I met Russell Atkins in the 1970s. Cleveland, at that time, had barely emerged from one of the most painful eras in its modern history, a time of great racial turmoil followed by a growing awareness and embrace of the rights of its citizenry. A time ripe for looking inward, for self-expression, for a critical appraisal of institutions. In other words, a time for poetry! Poets from all over the city found themselves, organized one another, and began presenting readings and workshops in settings as various as churches, museums, schools, parks and, on one unforgettable occasion, in a junkyard. Many voices linger in memory: Cy Dostal, Barbara Angell, Daniel Thompson, Robert Wallace, and Alberta Turner, who are no longer with us. The poetry scene was scrappy and boisterous, and, if it had a calm center, it would be Russell Atkins. A child raised decently in a troubled time, a school boy encouraged to read and, ultimately, to write. He never succumbed to the pretensions of some of the era’s louder voices. He was, to use his own words, “an outright man,” a gifted and industrious craftsman, the friend and publisher of many poets. When I first heard Russell Atkins read his poetry, he already had a national following. I was a middle-aged actuary, and I had just begun to write poetry myself. His gift, his poise, his style in poetry and in demeanor registered deeply on me. We are now both old men. I write little nowadays, but I remember the heady days of Cleveland in the 70s and 80s when many men and women began to parse the world in love and anger, and we had always the exemplary presence of Russell Atkins at the center. And I am grateful.
The book contains the words of twenty-nine men and women writers of several generations from all over the U.S. Several were youth when they met Russell’s students in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s. Many, elders read with Russell at libraries and colleges. Others, like me, knew him as an august participant in public workshops. Many writers expressed an appreciation for Russell’s writing, in John Donoghue’s case, awe:
Long before I met Russell I came across a copy of Here in The, a book that stopped me cold in my poetry-writing tracks: “What’s the point of me writing any poetry,” I thought, “when Mr. Russell Atkins is writing poetry like this?” His use of language was entirely original—and wonderful. With my grammar-challenged brain I couldn’t explain to myself what he was doing, and when I tried to do it myself—I couldn’t do that either. I still can’t explain it, or do it, but so what? Russell does it, and his doing it puts it in the world. Here are some examples: “where an oncoming diesel/dangerouses;” “the lively soiled dishes/pile the food cart with obstacle,” “I came upon that gate/that tracery’d gently into open,” “On one side’s a gloom of dreadful harsh,/Then brakes flash lights up sheer./There is much huge about,” “Afresh’d with paint, the shop had glare,” “came:/to sight drastic’d a lo and behold.” It was as if he’d found a new dimension to the language of poetry, opened up a new seam in it, and I’ve often gone back to that book, that seam, not to mine it myself but to marvel at it, and be nurtured by it.
What none of us say in our tributes is that sometime in the 1990s, the local government decided that Russell was suffering dementia and they forced him to sell his family home and turn the money over to a guardian and lawyer, who went through the money posthaste. Russell was placed into government assisted housing and then, a nursing home.When Pleiades Press Kevin Prufer found him around 2013, Russell still had seven boxes of books with all his papers, including letters from Langston Hughes (each letters worth at least $3000) and Marianne Moore (worth who knows how much). By the time I, along with three others in this book, found him in 2015, all the papers had been destroyed on the grounds that there were bugs in the boxes. We have been working ever since to pull him out of the deep depression this caused, and last week, in front of a full house at the Cleveland Museum of Art, he was given the Cleveland Art Prize for Lifetime Achievement. He received a standing ovation, the only one of the eight artists to do so. The jury felt he had been overlooked too long, and they chose to give him the award over very deserving painters, sculptors, and musicians.
In his lifetime, Russell has written not only poetry, criticism, and plays, he wrote classical compositions for piano and other instruments and two operas. He edited a magazine Free Lance that was considered the first and most influential magazine of the Black avant garde. When he was interviewed and photographed many times the past month, every person who met him commented on how sharp, funny, and interesting he was. So much for his utter dementia, which we his friends think shows the local government’s utter incomprehension of how some artists speak and act.
Still, his daily life is not easy. This is my prose poem on one afternoon visiting him
VISITING RUSSELL ATKINS WITH ALARM
A man shouted, “I’m here to get the body,” as he came in the door with a gurney. The door alarm went off. Russell, whose room at The Grande Pavilion Nursing and Rehabilitation is just inside this door and this alarm, looked up, and said softly, “Oh no.” Then Russell and I returned to our work, transcribing his new poem. But the alarm, which is piercing, did not stop. The man shrugged sheepishly and continued down the hall with his rattling cart. The alarm continued. It screeched on and on. I went and stood out in the hall looking desperate. An aide came into Russell’s room, grabbed a long clamp for reaching things, and whapped the alarm with it. It stopped. Moments later, the man came back with the body on the gurney, which got stuck halfway out the door, setting the alarm off again. The man wheeled the body back in, closed the door, and started over, looking at us apologetically and shrugging again as the alarm went off for the third time. An aide shouted to him to lean on the alarm and the door at the same time. As these were over three feet apart, he stood puzzling that. Finally an employee arrived and leaned on the alarm while the gurney driver leaned on the door. The door opened, the alarm stopped, the body rolled out the door. Russell and I went back to work on his new poem, the first in two years, “Rest Home.”
I’d like to end today with one more poem in my book, a double abecedarian to poets during National Poetry month, first published by Ohio Poetry Association editor Steve Abbott for the anthology Common Threads. I hope it inspires you to write your own abcedarian, but I hope too that it captures our cameradie and affection for each other and our chatter and our process as we go about writing poetry, which I contend does save our lives and our friendships, which make them worth living.
Double Abecedarian for NaPoWrMo
All my poet friends and I are looking for pizazz
by working out at the pome machine each day,
counting or listing or otherwise composing, mumbling, “Lummox,
Dunderhead, dear me my pome machine seems broke, wow!”
Every idea I ever had seems, Luv,
fled from my brain, off in the bayou or, in a mumu,
getting on the bus without me, so abrupt,
hightailing away, the sonnets, haikus and glosas.
I need though, thirty days of this, altogether,
jump-starting my way from the ghazals of Iraq,
keeping at it through haiku, free verse, wishing for an APP
like those that exist for other tasks, arriving at last to