By Lewis Turco
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 Theatre, but 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 ‘Musical’ Composition.”
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 ‘abstract poetry,’ and what Donald Davie 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 DISTANT CHURCH
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
This 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.
Loring 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 meet.
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.
I am 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 Authors.”
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.
Early 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 1962. Julie 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.’
“Then 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.’
“Mind 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.
“Then 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 next time.
“Sorry to hear about the death of Alice Crane Williams. I sent L. Williams a ms. Kennedy elegy the same week. Fate again.”
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 there.
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 be published?
“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 the festival.
“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 himself….
“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.”
On 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."
Casper L. Jordan, 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?”
Russell 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 suppose.
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?
”Received elegant 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 years. However.”
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 Festival justice?
“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 me.)”
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 dues.
“Let me know about Despà.”
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 publishing
“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 happened here.
“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 deplore.
“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 reprinted.
“Your 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. …
“As for me, rather disgruntled about things at present and have been devoting myself to music.
“P. 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 somewhat frustrating.
“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 panel.)”
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.
My 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.
“I have only recently resumed my writing, but, of course, the problems of money seem to be taking over now.
“Being 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 record straight.
“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 available.
“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.”
Becker 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 Church.”
Russell Atkins, The Abortionist and The Corpse, Two Poetic Dramas to Be Set to Music, Cleveland: Free Lance Press, 1963.
—, Here in The, Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1976.
—, Heretofore, London, UK: Paul Breman, 1968.
—, Maleficium (short fiction), Cleveland, OH: Free Lance Press, 1971.
—, The Nail, to Be Set to Music, Cleveland, OH: Free Lance Press, 1970.
—, “Night and a Distant Church,” in Poetry: An Introduction through Writing by Lewis Turco, Reston, VA: Reston Publishing Co., 1973.
—, Objects, Eureka, CA: Hearse Press, 1963.
—, Objects 2, Cleveland, OH: Renegade Press, 1964.
A Psychovisual Perspective for "Musical" Composition (theory of musical aesthetics), Cleveland, OH: Free Lance Press, 1958.
—, Phenomena, Wilberforce, OH: The Free Lance Poets and Prose Workshop, Wilberforce Univ., 1961.
—, A Podium Presentation, Brooklyn Heights, OH: The Poetry Seminar Press, 1960.
—, Whichever, Cleveland, OH: Free Lance Press, 1978.
Donald Davie, Articulate Energy: An Inquiry into the Syntax of English Poetry, New York, NY: Harcourt, Brace 1958.
Ronald Henry High, “Russell Atkins,” in Afro-American Poets Since 1955, Farmington Hills, MI: Dictionary of Literary Biography, vol. 41, ed, Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, Gale Research, 1985.
Stephen Henderson, ed. Understanding the New Black Poetry, New York, NY: William Morrow, 1973.
H. Collister Hutchison, Toward Daybreak, New York, NY: Harper, 1950
Woodie King, ed., The Forerunners: Black Poets in America, Howard University Press, 1975.
Proceedings of the National Poetry Festival held in the Library of Congress, October 22-24, 1962, Washington, DC: U. S. Government Printing Office, 1964.
Eugene Redmond, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History, Norwell, MA: Anchor Press, 1976.
Russell Salamon, Descent into Cleveland, Clearwater, FL: Words and Pictures Press, 1994.
—, Parent[hetical Pop]pies, Cleveland, OH: Renegade Press, 1964
Julie Suk in Lewis Turco and His Work: A Celebration, ed. Steven E. Swerdfeger, Scottsdale, AZ: Star Cloud Press, 2004, p. 197.
Lewis Turco, "Angle of Ascent: The Poetry of Robert Hayden," Michigan Quarterly Review, xvi:2, Spring 1977.
—, Awaken, Bells Falling: Poems 1959-1968, Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1968.
—, The Book of Forms: A Handbook of Poetics, Fourth Edition, Lebanon, NH: University Press of New England, 2012.
—, First Poems, Francestown, NH: Golden Quill Press, 1960.
—, The Green Maces of Autumn, Voices in an Old Maine House, Dresden Mills, ME: Mathom Bookshop, 2002.
—, The Sketches of Lewis Turco and Livevil: A Mask, Cleveland, OH: American Weave Press, 1962.
Alberta Turner, ed., Poetry: Cleveland, Cleveland, OH: Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1971.
Gary Youree, ed., Poets for Peace: Poems from the Fast, ed., New York, NY: Poets for Peace, 1967.