Russell Atkins

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Russell Atkins (born February 25, 1926) is a musician, playwright, and poet from Cleveland, Ohio, known primarily for his contributions to American avant garde poetry. He was born in Cleveland and raised on Cleveland's east side by three women - his mother, his grandmother, and his aunt Mae - after his father deserted the family. The family resided in Atkins' aunt Mae's home.[1][2]

Trained as a musician and visual artist, Atkins studied at Cleveland College, Cleveland Music School Settlement, Cleveland Institute of Music, Karamu House, and Cleveland School of Art.[3]

His plays The Abortionist and The Corpse debuted in 1954. Following this, he founded Free Lance, A Magazine of Poetry and Prose in 1950[4] with his friend, Adelaide Simon, with the first issue containing an introduction by Langston Hughes.[5] It attracted writers from all over the world, leading the now-defunct Black World to call it "the only Black literary magazine of national importance in existence."[3] In 1959 Free Lance Press began publishing books, with a volume of poetry from Conrad Kent Rivers.[5] Free Lance was under Atkins leadership for more than two decades, and allowed Atkins to correspond with writers from across the country.[6][7]

Russell Atkins resided in his aunt Mae's house on Cleveland's East Side for 62 years, until 2010, when the city took possession and demolished it. Afterward, he moved into the Fenway Manor apartments near Case Western Reserve University.[8]

In 2017 the City of Cleveland granted a portion of Grand Avenue the supplementary name "Russell Atkins Way" in his honor.[9][10]


Atkins was one of the first Concrete poets in the United States, arranging the words on the page to enhance poems' meaning. He was also an innovator in poetic drama. Much of Atkins' work, including the verse drama The Abortionist, was published in issues of The Free Lance a literary journal published by Free Lance Press of Cleveland, Ohio.

Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten introduced Atkins' work to magazines. Hughes read his poems at the University of Michigan and the University of Chicago, and Marrianne Moore read them on the radio in 1951.[1]

Atkins' books include Phenomena (1961), Objects (1963), Heretofore (1968), Maleficum (1971), Objects 2 (1973) and Here in The (1976), which is Atkins' only full length poetry collection.

Critical reception[edit]

Despite being published almost forty years ago and being long out of print, Here in The continues to attract critical attention. In 2014 the poet Joshua Ware, who teaches at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio wrote that "Atkins creates a singular, Cleveland-based beauty in his language and the sounds it produces." And "the poet surveys the city, its residents, and surroundings, noting how even traditionally beatific images, such as a sunset, can transform into something less gorgeous in the crumbling urban cityscapes."[11]

Patrick James Dunagan wrote: "Both prolific and diverse, Russell Atkins’ literary output crosses over traditional divisions of genre, style, and form."[12]

In 2013 the Pleiades Press at the University of Missouri published a collection entitled Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master,[6][13] and in October 2014 several of Atkins’ friends organized a reading and celebration of the poets’ work at the East Cleveland Public Library in East Cleveland, Ohio.[13]

In 2017 he was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize for his lifetime achievement.[14]

In 2019, World'd Too Much: The Selected Poetry of Russell Atkins, edited by Kevin Prufer and Robert E. McDonough, was published by the Cleveland State University Poetry Center.[15]


  1. ^ a b Atkins, R., Here in The, Cleveland, Ohio: Cleveland State University Poetry Center (1976).
  2. ^ "Atkins, Russell". Ohio Center For The Book. Cleveland Public Library. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
  3. ^ a b Fleming, Robert, (2013). "Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master" (review), AALBC. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
  4. ^ Metres, Philip (December 12, 2016). "An Unsung Master Gets His Voice Heard". Cleveland Magazine. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
  5. ^ a b Joyce, D. F. (1991), "Free Lance Press", Black Book Publishers in the United States: A Historical Dictionary of the Presses, 1817-1990, pp. 112-115. Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport CT. ISBN 0-313-26783-9
  6. ^ a b K. Prufer (ed.), Russell Atkins: On the life and work of an American master. Warrensburg, Mo.: Pleiades Press (2013). ISBN 978-0964145443
  7. ^ "Rediscovering Russell Atkins - Belt Magazine - Dispatches From The Rust Belt". Belt Magazine - Dispatches From The Rust Belt. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
  8. ^ "Profile: Russell Atkins". Vouched Books. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
  9. ^ "Russell Atkins Street Naming". City of Cleveland Ohio. June 10, 2017. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
  10. ^ "Development, Planning & Sustainability Meeting". Cleveland City Council. April 18, 2017. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
  11. ^ "Best Thing I've Read This Week: Russell Atkins - Vouched Books". Vouched Books. Retrieved 11 October 2014.
  12. ^ Dunagan, P. J. (2013) "Review: Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master", Your Impossible Voice, September 23, 2013. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
  13. ^ a b Clevelandpoetics, Russell Atkins. Retrieved 3 December 2014.
  14. ^ Barnett, David C. (June 26, 2017). "Cleveland Poet Russell Atkins Modest About Arts Prize". Ideastream. Retrieved January 3, 2019.
  15. ^ "World'd Too Much: The Selected Poetry of Russell Atkins". Cleveland State University Poetry Center. Retrieved 2020-04-22.

External links[edit]