Russell Atkins: On the Life & Work of an American Master
By Patrick James Dunagan
Both prolific and diverse, Russell Atkins’ literary output crosses over traditional divisions of genre, style, and form. He has drafted musical scores for many of his literary works and theorized his original theory of practice in his essay “A Psychovisual Perspective for ‘Musical’ Composition.” His spelling, syntax, and subject matter all tend to be unorthodox. The one problem with this selection of work is that it leaves you feeling there should be more included. Let’s have a full Collected Poems rather than this slim gathering. Of course, that is the point. The format of the Unsung Masters Series calls for the selection of the writer’s work to be followed by inclusion of recent critical essays by scholars. Responding here to Atkins are Aldon Lynn Nielsen, Tom Orange, Evie Shockley, Sean Singer, and Tyrone Williams. The essays not only provide context for approaching Atkins’ work, but also demonstrate the ongoing relevance located within it. The hope, at least in part, is to generate a broader interest in Atkins among poets, scholars, and general readers.
Atkins’ work may be all but forgotten to most readers, yet, as with all good poetry, it continues to have zing. There is a persistent pursuit of the experimental throughout. He is clearly concerned more with how the poem is working rather than what its content expresses. This is not to suggest that he doesn’t use his art to make a statement but rather that he never allows the content to distract from the fact that he is crafting an object of art. If anything, his devotion to experimentation at times distracts the reader’s attention from what is happening within lines of a poem. As with the speaker’s ranting in “World’d Too Much (Irritable Song)” against continual intrusions by others everywhere it seems he goes for solitude:
(hazed by a dell’s emerald’d,
that is, pastel’s from a green rain)
aloned hush had banished heard,
no one for hours! Perfect, I thought,
such Garbo! —until
I saw someone afar’d, somebody by
In these instances, Atkins pursues a zesty sense of sheer sound that, to my own ear, is similar to that of Gerard Manley Hopkins’ theories of “Inscape” and “Instress.” He searches out the tune beneath the words, the inner rigging that’s just waiting to be sounded out.
Over the years, several poems have undergone visual changes on the page for different appearances in print, with Atkins never appearing to favor one over the other. “Night and A Distant Church” is a very Cummings-esque performance—in terms of how the poem is laid out typographically—of one such instance. The closing lines of the earlier version read:
wind mmm m
into the mm wind
rain now and again
The later, more stolid, and, perhaps, less-thrilling version:
wind mmm m
into the mm wind
rain now and again
As Evie Shockley notes: “Humans recede into the background, our presence marked only by the sounds we send out to play in the sky with the natural elements.” Aldon Nielsen refers to this as Atkins’ “concrete playfulness,” identifying how “many will see (hear?) ‘hell’s bells’ emerging from the distant church, but this disjunctive typography also gives us ‘ells’ that ‘b’ (‘ells be’), an ‘ell’ being something L-shaped, but also a unit of measurement, rounding out Atkins’ measures.”
The Introduction, penned by editors Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis, gives an intimate account of recent visits with Atkins. They recount the hauling down of boxes, the going through, stacking, and sorting of manuscripts and correspondence with Atkins, who is nearing ninety, along with his general living conditions.
On the eleventh floor of Fenway Manor, overlooking the Cleveland Children’s Museum, is Russell Atkins’ Apartment. These days, he spends most of his time in an unadorned living room, where he’s got a sofa, a twin bed of the kind designed for hospitals, a walker, a wheelchair in the corner and a flat screen TV that chatters on in the background. He hasn’t many possessions on display—a few books, a couple black and white family photographs. The most treasured of his items he keeps in six or seven tattered cardboard boxes, some stacked in the closet, others placed at the foot of his bed.
Russell Atkins is an American original, representative of an often African-American or increasingly Hispanic American working class side of American culture and society which is at an ever increasing rate being dropped by the wayside. This is the down and out, every day underbelly of American cities. As Sean Singer argues, for Atkins “the urban environment is a vital source for [Atkins’] imagination. Urban life, and specifically black urban life, is important to his work. Cleveland, and the cultural imagination of Cleveland, are ‘main characters’ in most of Atkins’ work.” His writings are of a quirky, odd sort and there’s no easy “fit” for them, since there’s often nothing very fashionable happening in them—not now and not at the time he was writing. Born and raised in Cleveland, he’s never left. The majority of his published books come from small presses, with the possible exception of Paul Bremen’s Heritage Series published out of London in the 60s. In 1976, Cleveland State University brought out the largest selection of his poems entitled Here In The. There has been little attention given his work on any significant public level since. The inclusion of Russell Atkins’ work in the Unsung Masters series by Pleiades Press seems destined. He’s exactly of the sort whose work and life this project is meant to serve.
Russell Atkins: On the Life & and Work of an American Master
Edited By Kevin Prufer and Michael Dumanis
Pleiades Press 2013
Patrick James Dunagan lives in San Francisco and works in Gleeson library @ USF. His latest books are “There Are People Who Think That Painter’s Shouldn’t Talk”: A GUSTONBOOK (Post Apollo 2011) and Das Gedichtete (Ugly Duckling forthcoming 2013). Other things are appearing or expected with: 1913 A Journal of Forms, American Book Review, Amerarcana, Bright Pink Mosquito, Dusie, Greetings, House Organ, HTMLgiant, Lifeanddeathofamericancities, Lightning’d Press house mag, New Pages, Rain Taxi, The Rumpus, Shampoo, Switchback, and The Volta.