NOTE: Jean Turco, née Houdlette, grew up with Tomie as her only childhood playmate (no other children in the neighborhood) in Meriden, Connecticut. She appears in several of Tomie's "chapter books." Jean, Tomie, and Lewis were classmates in Meriden High School; Tomie was art editor of the yearbook, The Annual 1952 of which Lewis was co-editor. They have remained friends for a lifetime.
The poet Russell Atkins and I have been friends for over half a century, ever since I moved in
1960 from Iowa City, where I had been attending the Writers’ Workshop, to
Russell’s native Cleveland. That was also the year that his first collection, A Podium Presentation, and my own First Poems were published — mine in
June while I was still in Iowa. I arrived in town with my wife, Jean, and a new
baby daughter, Melora Ann, in late summer, a couple of weeks before my first
job as an instructor of English began at Fenn College, a downtown engineering
school located at Euclid Avenue and 24th Street.
Russell had attended many other local schools
including Cleveland Music School Settlement, Cleveland Institute
of Music, and Cleveland School of Art. He had been born on February 26, 1926, which made him my
senior by eight years, so either he was a late starter or I was an early one —
actually, up until 1950 he had been primarily a musician and artist heavily
involved with cultural activities in the Afro-American community, including Karamu
in that year he co-founded, with Casper L. Jordan, a poetry magazine titled Free Lance that published experimental
work and had as its foundation a style or method of writing Atkins called “phenomenalism”
which was supposed to combine images and sounds of unusual and quotidian sorts
in order “to exploit range, to create a body of effect, event, colors,
characteristics, moods, verbal stresses pushed to a maximum.” This was much the
same idea that Emily Dickinson and Wallace Stevens had when they wrote in what
the British poet and critic Donald Davie called “musical syntax” in his book Articulate Energy in 1958. Russell
anticipated Davie’s book when he published in the 1955–1956 issue of Free
Lance his influential essay titled, “A Psychovisual Perspective for
In The Book of Forms I summarize Davie’s
argument thus: "’...syntax is [abstract] or musical when its function is to please us by the fidelity with
which it follows a “form of thought” through the [writer's] mind but without
defining that thought.’ The idea behind
what is here called ‘abstract syntax,’ what Edith Sitwell called ‘abstractpoetry,’ and what DonaldDavie called ‘musical syntax’ is the
same idea as that which is behind ‘abstract art,’ which is to approach the
condition of music in language or in painting.
Music is the most abstract of the arts in that there are no ‘meanings’
attached to notes or musical phrases.
There may be a kind of general feeling attached to some aspects of
music; for instance, minor keys ‘feel’ sad whereas major keys don't; fast music
feels happy, but slow music feels moody.
Aside from that sort of thing, no meanings inhere in music, yet we enjoy
it because we can perceive musical structures and progressions, harmonies,
dissonances, counterpoint, and so forth.
If painting, let's say, wants to approach the abstract condition of
music, one must get rid of identifiable representations, of figures, in one's
work. The same thing must be done in
language, as well, if one is going to write using abstract syntax.”
A poem I recall vividly from Russell’s collection Object (1963), because I enjoyed it so
much when I heard Russell read it early in our acquaintance, will illustrate:
NIGHT AND A
Forward abrupt up
the mmm mm
wind mm m
the mm mm
wind mm m
into the mm wind
rain now and again
the mm wind
Cummingsesque piece really is a poem one needs to hear to appreciate, because Russell never stopped being a musician,
even in his writing.
I’m not certain exactly where or when I first met
Russell, but it was through the aegis of Loring Williams whom I had known for
years before I arrived in town. Loring
was a transplant from South Berwick, Maine, who had long been editor and
publisher of the Cleveland little magazine American
Weave and the press of the same name; he had also been one of the three founders
of the State of Maine Writers’ Conference at Ocean Park which — curiously — was
also the venue of the Baptist-affiliated Royal Ambassador’s Boys’ Camp that I
had attended as a child: my preacher father had been a counselor there.
was also one of the three editors of the Book Club for Poetry, a function of
Golden Quill Press, my first publisher — he had
helped choose my First Poems for the
Club in the academic year 1959-1960, while I was still a grad student at Iowa
and before I knew I was coming to Cleveland for my first full-time teaching
position. In 1962 he would publish my second collection, a sequence of poems
titled The Sketches, as an American
Weave Award Chapbook. Apparently it was foreordained that Russell and I would
Both Russell and Loring were deeply rooted in
Cleveland. Although Loring was “from away,” as folks say here in Maine where
both Loring and I retired, he had married Alice Crane Williams, the aunt of the
city’s most famous native son, the poet Hart Crane, and he knew everyone. It
may have been at a meeting of the Ohio Poetry Society where I first ran into
Russell, or at some other local function of a similar kind. Certainly, by the time I founded the Fenn
College Poetry Center in 1962 Russell Atkins and I had known each other for a
year or two.
not sure, either, exactly when I met
the elderly Cleveland poet H. Collister Hutchison, but at some point early in
my Cleveland tenure Loring and I went to her home for a visit where she signed
and presented me with a copy of her only book, Toward Daybreak, published in 1950 with illustrations by the artist
Marc Chagall. On Wednesday, February 21st, 1962, Miss Hutchison gave
her only Fenn College poetry reading — and, to the best of my knowledge, her only local
reading ever — at 2:30 in the afternoon.
The Fenn College
Poetry Center of Cleveland was officially established two months after the
Hutchison reading, on April 14, 1962. Dr. Randolph Randall, the Chair, was ill
and in hospital, so I was named founding director by Dr. Donald E. Tuttle, the
acting chair. My only faculty collaborator in the venture was the late David
French, the audio-visual technician of the College and an amateur poet who
would finish his Ph.D. in history at Western Reserve University and later become
Dean of Erie College, not far up the road toward Buffalo. Dave and I began to
tape-record poets and Center programs for the “Fenn Series of Contemporary
The Poetry Center played host on April 26-27, 1962, to
the Ohio Versewriters Conference which had as readers Russell Atkins; Jim
Crenner, an Iowa Workshop classmate of mine; Irving Feldman; Mac Hammond, a
faculty member at Western Reserve — now the combined Case-Western Reserve University — who
had suffered a nervous breakdown and had begun to come out of it by giving his
first public reading in years; Judson Jerome, who taught at Antioch College
downstate and had been co-editor of New
Campus Writing 3 which had used some of my work while I was attending the
University of Connecticut after a four-year hitch in the Navy; Alberta Turner, a faculty wife and part-time
freshman composition instructor at Oberlin College who would succeed me as
director of the Center, and Miller Williams, who had been a Poetry Fellow with
me at Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference the previous year.
in the subsequent fall Loring Williams and I went to Washington, D. C., to
attend the Library of Congress’ National Poetry Festival which, unfortunately
as it happened, was held while the Cuban Missile Crisis was occurring, so nobody
ever heard of it. The Crisis was still not resolved when we got back to
Cleveland where the first “Poets for Peace” reading in the United States,
protesting not only what was happening at that moment, but also President
Kennedy’s early involvement in what would soon be known as “the Vietnam War,”
took place on Sunday, October 28th, 1962. The Plain Dealer reported the next day, “Nine poets protested for
peace before a quiet crowd of 150 persons on the steps near Wade Park Lagoon in
front of the Cleveland Museum of Art yesterday afternoon.
“While the poetry reading was going on, three
members of the security unit of the Cleveland police surveyed the crowd. There
was no disturbance.” Among the readers “Four Cleveland poets — Russell Atkins,
Leonard Dryanski, Mac Hammond, and Lewis Turco — read works written by them for
the demonstration.” But all nine of the readers, including P. K. Saha, an
Indian faculty member of Case Institute of Technology, and Reuben Silver were
from the Cleveland area. The Plain Dealer
published only one photo of the event — that of Silver who happened to be the
single avowed member of the American Communist Party who read. It was not until
five years later that the movement developing from this event would produce an
anthology, Poets for Peace, edited by
Gary Youree in 1967.
friend of Russell and a fellow local Afro-American writer, Louis Albion
Williams, was the focus of Poetry Forum I on October 19th of
Suk wrote a memoir of that original Poetry Forum:
“I had just moved to Ohio from Birmingham, Alabama. Newcomer to
poetry after a half-hearted painting career, I decided to venture down to the
Forum and try out a few poems. I dropped my name in a basket by the door and
walked in expecting a small group of readers and friends. Wrong! No smattering
of people. Instead, a large and lively crowd celebrating guest speakers topped
off by an AME Zion Church choir singing spirituals. ‘This Little Light of
Mine,’ ‘I Wish I Knew How I’d Feel to Be Free,’ ‘There Is No Hiding Place Down
Here’ — exuberant rhythms I grew up
longing to listen to over and over, so much so my friends and I would crawl
under revival tents whenever we found a chance to slip away from the starchy
Episcopal Church. As the singers left the stage, I lost myself in applause. A
thought ballooned, ‘Not an act I’d like to follow.’
came Lew’s voice over the mike, ‘We’ll start the poetry readings with Julie Suk
from Birmingham, Alabama. Will you please step up to the mike, Julie.’
you, this was during the time Martin Luther King was incarcerated in the
Birmingham jail, the time Freedom Riders were attacked by police dogs and hosed
down by the notorious Bull Conner. With my politically incorrect address and
heavy drawl, I did not expect roses strewn at my feet. I did not expect those
feet ever to reach the lectern, nor did I expect to survive humiliation. But
somehow, with shaky voice and hands, I made it through the ordeal. Silence.
Lew jumped up, grabbed the poem, and read it again, giving it a lot more than
the poem itself gave. The title? Long forgotten but no matter, Lew rescued me,
and thereafter I became a regular along with Loring Williams, Alberta Turner,
Russell Atkins, d. a. levy, Russell Salamon, Stuart Friebert, Mary Oliver, Bill
McLaughlin, James and Mary Ann Magner, Dave French, Al Cahen, Grace Butcher —
some of the names I remember when I sneak now under that flap of memory.”
I was ousted from Fenn in 1964 by the same man who
had hired me, and I spent a year in exile at an ultraconservative college in
southern Michigan whence I ousted myself to travel east to the State University
of New York College at Oswego where I spent the subsequent thirty-one years.
Before I got there, though, Russell sent a letter to me in Hillsdale, Michigan,
on Free Lance letterhead that read,
in part, “How are you? Thought I’d return this poem which was among manuscripts
here. I remember you gave it to me along with the one we printed. Don’t forget
us if you have a new batch. People liked the one that appeared.
“Manuscripts pouring in here. 300 or so a month. A
little beyond our capacity, so its taking us months to function.
“Have not attended any Forums at Fenn yet. Hope to
“Sorry to hear about the death of Alice Crane
Williams. I sent L. Williams a ms. Kennedy elegy the same week. Fate
Loring’s wife had passed away in her sleep. Loring
began to think about leaving Cleveland.
He had done so by March of 1966 — by then Fenn College had become
Cleveland State and I had landed in Oswego where I would remain for the rest of
my teaching career except for sabbaticals and visits to other schools here and
On January 1, 1966 Russell wrote, “Happy to hear
from you. When a poet asks about copyright, I suspect that a book is about to
“As it stands, I seldom handle that end of things.
Mr. Jordan, our ‘chief editor,’ manages them out of Niagara Falls. I have
written to him about Vol. 8, No. 1, but I am almost certain that he did not take out a copyright on that issue
because the printer left the notice of copyright off. Therefore, unless his
letter reveals otherwise, there’s no real assignment involved.
“However, this copyright thing is so complicated
that a publisher may want some kind of complete clearance in which case Mrs.
Simon, myself and Mr Jordan could send you a signed statement if you wish?”
Russell ended with, “Odd that I should receive a
letter from Russell Salamon on exactly the same day as your letter arrived. Met
Robert Bly, James Wright. Forum somewhat slow.”
At Oswego I of course had begun a reading series.
My chair, the late Dr. Erwin Palmer, had hired me because he wanted me to start
a poetry center as I’d done in Cleveland, but I told him the city of Oswego,
about 20,000 strong on the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, wasn’t big enough to
support such an institution. However, I said I’d be happy to establish an
undergraduate creative writing program on campus if he wished. Erwin had his
doubts about it, but he eventually gave me permission to give it a shot. I did
so and, like the C.S.U. Poetry Center, it continues to prosper.
Some of the first people I had come to read at
Oswego were my fellow conspirators from Cleveland Dave French and Al Cahen, who
had taken over Loring’s American Weave,
and Russell Atkins. Few who knew him thought that Russell, locally renowned as
a stick-in-the-mud, would leave his beloved aunt’s home on Grand Avenue, but he
surprised everyone, even me, by accepting my invitation to participate in the
Oswego Spring 1966 Writing Arts Festival on February 19th, 1966.
Russell wrote me, “I talked briefly with Dave
French after our short talk on the phone. He spoke of leaving the Friday of the
readings and arriving sometime that evening, as I understand it. We would
perform on Saturday and leave that evening or Sunday? Or would the readings
take place Friday evening? In short, I was wondering about accommodations for
staying two nights: dormitory or
rooms? private? or somebody’s house? Hotel, etc.? (Short on cash) Dave French
suggested that you would be sending instructions of some kind? Any idea as to
how long each participant would read?
“Would appreciate seeing any publicity concerning
“P.S. I had wondered about staying two nights? Prefer one night.”
Of course all travel expenses and accommodations
for the readers were taken care of, and they received honoraria. The whole
journey and event was a complete success; Russell enjoyed the trip and himself.
On March 11th Loring sent me a letter from Maine that read in part, “I wondered
how the Cleveland boys would make it up to Oswego, with all the winter you were
having. I am glad that all went well. Al and Dave are two dependable characters
and Russell is at his best, apparently, on the platform. I doubted that Russell
would go. I’m glad he did.”
Russell himself wrote to say as much: “I wish
to thank you for an enjoyable visit to Oswego — my first departure from
Cleveland in ten years — and for asking me to participate in the festival.
“I received the poster. Also, if any mention of our reading(s) comes
out in the campus paper, please send same. “Enclosed is Jau Billera’s Podium. He will probably send you one
“My regards to your
charming family and the kitty-cat” whose name was Pookah. “P. S.,” he appended,
If anybody makes a separate tape from the original I would like to have one if
possible. No hurry at all.”
The next time he wrote me Russell said, “Hear
you are very busy and doing exciting things at Oswego.
“Saw your review in the
new American Weave. Cleverly
organized. Also received copy of Al Cahen’s book. Very strikingly done. Have
missed the Forums since I’ve been somewhat ill.
“Well, I suppose you
might have heard that d. a. levy and some of the group here have become objects
of the police, FBI and narcotics agents. Much cause célèbre in the making
here.” Levy had been one of the Poetry
Center Forum regulars and the proprietor of Renegade Press, publisher, on a
table-top press, of chapbooks of poetry by many of the local “underground” poets
including Atkins and my student Russell Salamon.
“Enclosed find new Free Lance.” He appended a P. S.: “If
you hear of any magazines looking for poems, let me know. Recently managed to
write a few.”
January 30, 1967, Loring wrote to say,
"Well, I've been in Maine a full year, and am still quite
content.... I suppose your Cleveland correspondents are keeping you up-to-date
on the Jim Lowell-d. a. levy scandal. Perhaps 'scandal' isn't the right
word...but it has to do with d.a.'s publishing and Lowell's selling of
'pornographic' literature [from his Asphodel Bookshop]. I never thought his
(and his satellite's) ravings were 'pornographic'...but merely the scribblings
of little boys on shit-house walls."
co-editor of Free Lance, in November
of 1967 sent me a letter of soliciitation: “Free
Lance is planning a memorial issue for Langston Hughes to be published in
the winter of this year. Mr. Hughes was a lifelong friend, advisor, and trustee
of Free Lance and the editorial board
was unanimous in thought for such a gesture.
“In this connection we
are soliciting material from some of the most interesting writers throughout
this country and abroad. Would you be interested in submitting a poem or a
short prose piece that is inspired in some way (it need not be directly) by
Hughes, the man, his work, or his philosophy?”
appended a postscript, “Just a line or two if you feel disposed to do so.
Hope you are well.”
I sent in a poem titled
“Parenthetics for Langston Hughes,” written in a form that had been invented by
my Fenn student Russell Salamon who had been Levy’s roommate for a while and
had spent a good deal of time trying to keep him interested in life. Salamon was eventually
the author of an epic of sorts about Levy titled Descent Into Cleveland. It
described the underground scene in the city during the ‘sixties, Levy’s
involvement in it, and it led up to the climax of Levy’s suicide in 1968.
I was thankful not to have been in Cleveland when Levy took his
own life. I've known self-destructive people, but D. A. Levy was world-class in
that regard. I suppose his death was inevitable, but it was very sad. He was a
harmless little guy, really, and not the wild Beat renegade he liked to act;
however, some people do remember him as the most famous native Cleveland poet
after Hart Crane, also a suicide, which is an accomplishment of sorts, I
Five years later, on
September 10, 1972, Russell wrote me to say, “Thanks. Anthology idea would be
excellent,” but I don’t remember what it was. “I’d have to ease the idea to
Casper, my co-editor. He has become quite a success in library science and I
have a devil of a time keeping his interest focused on FL, Atlanta U. has given him control of 2 million dollars for a new
wing to their Ford Library. When he completes this job maybe he’ll come around
to FL again in the meantime.
“Will definitely send
tour bio. to the school. Reading your Awaken,
Bells Falling. Saw it out on the tables at Main Lib.” My third collection
of poems had been published in 1968.
I had written Russell
asking his permission to reprint his poem “Night and a Distant Church” in a
college anthology I was preparing. He agreed and later wrote, “Thought I’d drop
you a copy of the new Free Lance.
Also wondered if Poetry: An Introduction
was still scheduled? I am preparing a bibliography for readings this fall and
I’d like to have it listed if it comes out?
“Received a brochure from
Writers Unlimited. Saw your name.
“I enclose Maleficium one
of my latest. Short mention in Library Journal. Not favorable.
(However, I like the work.)”
On January 29, 1973,
Russell wrote again, “Just a note to inquire whether there will be a
‘contributor’s’ copy of Poetry: An
Introduction [Through Writing], etc., or whether it would be best to put in
now for purchasing several copies?
announcement from Reston. Looks good.” In the spring Russell wrote twice more
to say, “Poetry: An Introduction arrived.
It should prove wonderfully helpful to all. I note a number of definitions that
should be theoretically quite utile. I’ve been using A. F. Scott’s book. Yours
is far more definitive. My Karamu workshop is not far enough along in level to
take any real stock in the terms. (In fact, a few of them escape me altogether
pronunciation-wise.) I note a sizable bit of D. A. and Russ Salamon. Brings
back memories. My letters to Russ never get through.
“Let me thank you again
for including my poem.
“I had hoped to have my
bio printed up in impressive form by now. Moneywise that hasn’t come to pass. I
would have to send the typed one. Which is a little depressing after all these
Besides Russell’s poem I
had included in the textbook my Langston Hughes tribute that had appeared in Free Lance; a piece by Salamon, ”She,”
that illustrated the parenthetical prosody he had invented and had first
appeared in a Renegade Press chapbook, Parent[hetical Pop]pies, and also an elegy for Levy, “Words for White Weather,” that I had written
on request for a memorial publication three years after Levy shot himself and
that Alberta Turner included in her anthology Poetry Cleveland.
Apparently Russell was on
a correspondence spree because on the 27th of April he wrote,
“Thanks a million for your books. I really have been reading a lot of your work
lately. Your control never gets in the way of the life of the poem. This is not
always the case with some poets. Their control creaks.
”All money arrived” —
payment for his poem in my textbook — “and I consider the reading at Oswego a
very successful one from my standpoint. I hope I did the remainder of the
“The next reading is at
Ashland College, then C[uyahoga] C[ommunity] C[ollege] here and then I think
I’ll be through for a while. I’ll begin work on Free Lance. CCLM’s grant may help me with a thicker issue if Casper
doesn’t balk on me.
“Tell everybody in the
family hi, especially that new baby. (And give the kitty a pat on the head for
I thanked him for his
kind remark, of course, and the following December he sent me some of his own
work. Then I didn’t hear from him for nearly a year, but in September 14th
of 1974 he wrote, “Meant to answer your letter by now. But this summer got
incredibly busy for me. … Somehow everybody decided to have a reading or a
workshop, etc. (And then they offered money too, so I went along with whatever
they thought they were doing.)
“”When I called you a
while back, I did so to ask you if Despà Press was still going? I’m thrashing
around again to see if I can’t get a book of poems [published]. I managed to
interest an agent but not with poems, of course, but with the promise of a
novel. That should give you some idea of my desperation!
”Your reading for the
Academy of American Poets reminds me, I joined the ‘affiliates,’ now I owe them
“Let me know about
In October he wrote,
“Have not heard from you for a while. Thought I’d write.
“Also, sending you my
latest. Here In The. I felt I should
have been on the ‘big’ series, but, for some reason, Alberta thought I should
be on the ‘Cleveland’ series. (Not ‘big’ enough for other series?)
“I still haven’t given up
on a commercial publisher. I fail to see why they have never been interested,
especially when I receive some of their choices for review and see what they’re
“How have you been, how’s
the wife, kids, everybody? By the way, I got a letter from Russell Salamon. He
writes once every 5 or 6 years. Has a book out [Descent into Cleveland].
“Well, thanks for things
and write whenever you can. Poetically, it’s not too bad here right now, and
certainly your starting the poetry center was one of the good things that
“P. S. Please try to
ignore that picture of me on the back. Dreadful.”
I replied on October
13th, “I’m glad to see the Poetry Center is doing books now, and publishing
some of the old gang. Not long back I had a letter from Julie Suk asking me to
write a blurb for her book, which was to have come out from the North Carolina
Review Press. I wrote it, sent it in, and got back a stricken letter from Julie
saying that the press had folded. Your sending me your book caused me to
remember the Center series, and I’ve written her today to send her ms. to
Alberta. I heard this past summer from Russell Salamon as well, and got a copy
of his new book.”
I heard from him again on
January 13th of 1976: “Thanks a million for the Xmas card and the
poem. I had a mildly eventful 1975. Nothing to boast of. A number of things to
“No book yet. Rejected by
Viking just before they sold out to Penguin Books. Had a referral from Malcolm
Cowley. Still not enough.
“Hope everybody is well
at your place, wife, children, the cat.”
In May of ’77, the 17th,
Russell wrote, “Thanks for copy of article which was interesting and brought
back memories of the ‘60s.” I had sent him an essay I’d just published in the Michigan Quarterly Review about another
Afro-American poet, "Angle of
Ascent: The Poetry of Robert Hayden," which has since been widely
argument may be a lost cause, however, for [Stephen] Henderson, [author of Understanding the New Black Poetry] and
others like him deliberately set out
to ignore things as a form of retaliation — based on the assumption that the
mainstream had ignored them. The truth of the matter is that it all turned out
to be a complicated mess and best avoided for many reasons. …
for me, rather disgruntled about things at present and have been devoting
myself to music.
S. Met Hayden once. We were cordial but cool.”
Russell wrote on May 9th of 1984 to say,
“Unfortunately, my aunt had just had a heart attack at the time your [Xmas]
card came and I was hurled abruptly into nursing with massive problems. She is
93 now and requires almost constant attention, but I managed to gain a little
control. Everything else has come to a halt. I had to give up my place on the
Ohio Arts Council and put poetry and an opera I’m writing on the shelf, all
“I have just turned over some of Loring Williams’
letters to my collection at Atlanta U.’s archives. I recalled those days along
with a notice I found for the Fenn College Conference of ’63.
”I’ve practically given up submitting work to mags.
They publish so irregularly that one can’t hope for much. I’d just as soon put
together a book and try to finance it or get a grant. But then there’s
distribution! Since Free Lance died”
— which was news to me! — “I’d have to work myself back through that process
and that is discouraging.”
In one of his more telling postscripts he asked, “Did
the news of Jau Billera’s suicide reach you? If not, well, that is the case as
of Jan. ’84.”
I replied on the 28th of May, “No, I hadn’t
heard about Jau’s suicide — I hear very little from Cleveland these days, but
that’s not surprising — it’s been twenty years since I’ve been back there! I do
hear from Alberta and Bob Wallace on occasion, and Bill McLaughlin sent me his
book a while back. Actually, it’s kind of nice that I still have so many
friends in town.”
Come September 20, 1984, Russell wrote, “Sorry to be
so long in replying to your letter of May, but running the ‘nursing home’ here
has become a major challenge Also, summer is the worst time of the year for me
since I suffer from breathing problems once the temperature reaches the 80s,
and I’ve been somewhat ill.
“At any rate, I am
very interested in your offer of distribution, imprint, etc., under Mathom
Press. First, let me say how surprised I am, since as you know, having conducted
Free Lance for thirty years I am
acutely aware of the problems of publishing anything. The best of luck to you!
Certainly this is a time of necessity, with the major publishers closing the
doors right and left on poetry. (However, this doesn’t really apply to you
since you’ve already done a number of books.)
“As for my book, I hope to finish it probably sometime
in late winter. My plan was to have the Ohio Arts Council help me fund the
publishing. (I don’t know where I stand with them now since I resigned the
He wrote another paragraph on this same subject and
ended, “Well, I’ll have to make a few calls and see where things stand. In the
meantime, thanks for being such a good friend and keep me posted.”
On the 18th of
February of the following year Russell wrote, “A number of things have kept you
on my mind of late: Russell Salamon came through town with a friend[,] a poet
named David Ross. They spent a day or two — came by the house here. I think
Russ said he was going to visit you…,” which he did in Oswego.
“Also, I was invited to the dedication of the Cleveland State
University Poetry Room [where] I talked to Donald Justice. I had no sooner
mentioned to Justice that I remembered him from the Western Review and your days of the forum when the dedication
began, and, surprisingly, the ceremony was a tape of your introduction of
Collister Hutchison at one of the Fenn Forums.” [It was at her reading, not a
Forum]. “Further, the room (the idea was advanced by a member of the Poets
League here) was named after Hutchison!!” I
eventually donated my copy of Collister’s inscribed book to the Poetry Room.
On January 25,
1986, replying to Russell’s query about my returning to Cleveland for a visit
at long last, I wrote, “Yes, there’s a good chance that I’ll be
coming back to Cleveland in the Fall. Alberta has invited me to participate in
the 25th anniversary celebration of the Poetry Center.” On May 8th I
followed up by writing him to confirm my impending visit, and I added, “Forgive
my depression. This spring everyone is dying around me, from suicide to heart
attack. I’ve been to five funerals in the last two months. Now my next-door
neighbor is going fast of liver cancer.”
I did attend the Poetry Center silver anniversary
celebration where Russell and I, and many others of my old Cleveland friends,
were reunited at long last. I kicked it off by giving a reading titled
“Orotund” at Reserve the night before the official public opening of the
conference at CSU. I recall that afterward a bunch of us wandered around the
streets of Cleveland looking for a restaurant that was still open so that we
could make up for the supper some of us had missed.
correspondence with Russell Atkins was becoming sparser as the years rolled
over us, but on January 16, 1989, Russell wrote, “Perhaps you might have heard:
at any rate, my dearest, sweetest relative, my aunt, died on Feb. 20th
’87. As you may guess, I have been a long time recovering.
have only recently resumed my writing, but, of course, the problems of money
seem to be taking over now.
absent from the poetry scene for almost ten years (aunt and mother) some
distortions of chronology seem to have developed regarding my work some
of which is now forty years old (even my copyrights have run out). Writers ten
and twenty years behind me (who may have been influenced by me instead of the
other way around) used to make comparisons! Nonsense!
“At any rate, I’m
enclosing an article on me from one of two mags trying to set some of the
“Well, it seems Alberta
Turner will be retiring next year — at least from the Poetry Forum CSU.”
My old friend and I
lost touch at that point. Twenty years later, on December 15, 2009, I took the
day off from working on my Epitaphs for
the Poets project (it would be completed and published in 2012) to write
“Memoir of a Cleveland Renegade” about D. A. Levy. I went on-line to get some
information and discovered that Russell Atkins was still living — I got his phone number and called him. We had a
lovely conversation about old names, old friends, old times.
Not long after, on January 22, 2010, I wrote him at his old address on Grand Avenue — he
was still living in his late aunt’s home, but apparently the authorities were
set on evicting Russell and tearing down the house for some civic project — and
I told him, “When we spoke, I said I’d send you some of the things
about you that exist in cyberspace, on the Web, and I enclose them.
“It was great fun to talk with you on the phone. Please write to me here
in Maine where Jean and I live now, and make sure you keep my address
“I also enclose a book I hope you’ll enjoy.” It was a collection of my
poems titled The Green Maces of Autumn,
Voices in an Old Maine House, the Cate Farm in Dresden Mills which has been
in my wife’s family for about two centuries.
When the State of Ohio took over Fenn College and turned it into
Cleveland State University in 1965 the new administrators apparently were in a
great hurry to bury the school’s plebeian past (Fenn had begun as “Cleveland
Y-Tech” in the 1930s), and it threw out as much of its accumulated detritus as
possible, including all the reel-to-reel tape-recordings that David French had
made of the poets who had read for the Poetry Center — I understand that at one point the newbies also tried
to get rid of the Center itself, but that didn’t work because the public
protested vigorously and loudly.
Fortunately, I have the DNA of a clerk (my mother was a stenographer and
a packrat) and similar training (I was a yeoman in the Navy); I took all my
correspondence with me when I left, and Dave gave me a complete set of the
recordings — I took those, too, and they sat on the shelves of
the Oswego English Department library for decades, even after reel-to-reels
tapes had become obsolete.
About the same time that
I retired in 1996 the librarians of CSU were absorbed in the task of
reassembling the materials and files that had been jettisoned in the early
years of the new regime. One of them, Joanne Cornelius of the CSU Special
Collections, got in touch with me as I was pondering what to do with all my old
stuff. She asked me what, if anything, I still had left over from my days at
Fenn. I replied that I had everything
left, and I sent it all to her.
That was it until I began
working on this essay on the thirteenth of February, 2012. There’s nothing more
aesthetically pleasing than a perfect circle: One of the first things I did was
to email Joanne to ask her to refurnish me with copies of the Atkins
correspondence I’d sent her, and William Becker, Fenn College Archivist at the
Cleveland State libraries, to ask him, “Have you anything in your archive on
Russell Atkins that I can use?” He responded by sending me some newspaper
clippings, and then he asked, “How come the Fenn Poetry Center taped so many
other poets, but not Atkins?”
“If Atkins read,” I told Becker, “Dave French taped it
because he taped everything. If it's not in the archives there, I have no idea
what happened to it. But Russell is still living, and it's not too late for you
folks to do it.”
wrote back the same day: “Thanks for the clue. I did a tape box by tape box
examination and found the 1962 O[hio] V[ersewriters’] C[onference] recording”
in the wrong box. So now C. S. U. not only has proof that Russell Atkins was
one of the very first readers of the Center, but it has the reading itself. It
was at this event where I probably first heard him read “Night and a Distant
Atkins, The Abortionist and The Corpse, Two Poetic Dramas to Be Set to Music, Cleveland: Free Lance Press, 1963.
in The, Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry
The Virginia Quarterly Review "The Mutable Past," a memoir collected in FANTASEERS, A BOOK OF MEMORIES by Lewis Turco of growing up in the 1950s in Meriden, Connecticut, (Scotsdale AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2005).
The Tower Journal Two short stories, "The Demon in the Tree" and "The Substitute Wife," in the spring 2009 issue of Tower Journal.
The Tower Journal Memoir, “Pookah, The Greatest Cat in the History of the World,” Spring-Summer 2010.
The Michigan Quarterly Review This is the first terzanelle ever published, in "The Michigan Quarterly Review" in 1965. It has been gathered in THE COLLECTED LYRICS OF LEWIS TURCO/WESLI COURT, 1953-2004 (www.StarCloudPress.com).
The Gawain Poet An essay on the putative medieval author of "Gawain and the Green Knight" in the summer 2010 issue of Per Contra.