Born: February 25, 1926
Ohio connection: Birth
Russell Atkins was born on February 25, 1926, in Cleveland, Ohio, to Perry Kelly and Mamie Bell Atkins. A leading innovator in experimental artistic movements of the 1940s through the 1970s (perhaps better known abroad than in America) Atkins is admired for his “brilliant, idiosyncratic poetry and wide-ranging intellect.” Atkins’ writings radically challenged conventions of both form and content in poetry, drama, and literary theory. His poems were among the precursors of the concrete movement in American poetry. Atkins was also ahead of his time in creating stage dramas that used violent or intentionally disturbing themes in an abstract and unsentimental way. Much of Atkins’ work was published in Free Lance, a Magazine of Poetry and Prose (1950-1980), a Cleveland-based small press literary journal devoted to avant-garde developments in writing, founded by Atkins (with Caspar L. Jordan) in part as a forum for Atkins’ own ideas, Free Lance also played a major part in the development of ideas and techniques of the new American poetry. Atkins served as editor and contributor and its first edition included an introduction written by Langston Hughes, an early collaborator and supporter. Free Lance gained national and worldwide readership. Printed in England it was distributed in Scotland, Ireland, France, Denmark, Sweden, and Australia.
Growing up in Cleveland, Atkins was reared by his mother and his aunt, Willie Mae Allen (whom he affectionately called A’Mae) both women instilled in him a love of music and of the arts. Atkins attended Central High School where he enjoyed taking music classes and reading major classics in literature and philosophy. Partially self-taught as a poet, by then he had already developed his own cutting-edge style. According to Atkins, “I was avant-garde before I knew there was one.” He created a style of concrete poetry in which visual presentation of words on the page predominates. At Central he discovered the works of imagist poets Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore–contemporary poets whom he credits as being early influences. His books include Phenomena (1961), Objects (1963), Heretofore (1968), Maleficum (1971), Objects, 2: Poems (1973), and Here In The (1976).
Russell Atkins remains in Cleveland. Throughout his career, Atkins participated in many workshops and collaborated with poets and musicians on a variety of works. The influence of his poetic, dramatic and musical innovation upon the local arts community has been compared to what John Coltrane was to jazz avant-gardism. Atkins has donated portions of his writing and correspondence to the Robert W. Woodruff Library of the Atlanta University Center Archives Research Center.
Honorary PhD., Cleveland State University (1976); Creative Fellowship, Ohio Arts Council, 1978; Lifetime Literary Achievement, Poetic League (1997).