Cleveland Poet Russell Atkins Modest About Arts Prize

Russell Atkins looks at a collection of his work. [David C. Barnett/ideastream]
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If Russell Atkins wasn’t getting a major cultural award this week, you may never have heard of this African-American poet. His avant garde work has been praised by major American writers and published in national literary journals. But for Atkins, painting word-pictures beats publicity.  

91-year-old Atkins is getting a lot of attention, lately.  Journalists, photographers, calls from old friends.  Everyone seems to be singing his praises.

"I just want them to quiet down," Atkins chuckles.

The modest poet claims he doesn’t know what all the fuss is about.  But, numerous area writers cite him as an influence.

Like R.A. Washington, who is taking a break after organizing shelves all morning in his new Guide to Kulchur bookstore on Cleveland's west side.  He clears a spot and sits for a minute, surrounded by stacks of contemporary titles.  But his attention is focused on a collection of older writing by Russell Atkins.  Washington pauses and smiles at a stanza from the poem Idyll.

snow brings restraint

and takes you by the arm:

snow’s religious, morals over

the landscape, relaxes

with a minister’s smile

and its hands folded

across a great belly…

--- from Idyll by Russell Atkins

"I love the music of it," says Washington.  "I mean, Russell’s always really musical and playful."

Atkins' poetry is distinctive in the way he plays with words.  Adjectives are often bent into new nouns. Sometimes, clusters of syllables are tossed out to recreate the sounds of waves lapping on the shore, or a beer can rattling across the floor of a lonely bus on a late-night run. Washington says he was a teenager when he was first enthralled by the wordplay of Russell Atkins.

"To find out that a man like that exists in Cleveland gave me another model," he says.

Atkins says he started thinking of himself as a poet when he was first published in a magazine called View in 1947, thanks to the help of a former Clevelander.

"That was introduced to me by Langston Hughes," Atkins recalls.  "And we became good friends."

Nationally prominent writers like Hughes and Marianne Moore quickly became advocates of the young poet, giving him professional advice and arranging radio performances of his work.  But, when a Black Arts Movement emerged in the wake of civil unrest in the 1960s, Atkins says some criticized him for not being political.

"They thought my subject matter wasn't black enough," Atkins muses.   "Like Langston, who thought in those terms, I never did."

R.A. Washington thinks writers of color are often given extra hoops to jump through.

"For marginalized people, there’s always this doubled work," he says.  "He had to uplift the community as well as express artistic excellence.  And it’s limiting." 

R.A. Washington dedicated a performance space in his bookstore to Russell Atkins.

Washington has dedicated a spot in the new bookstore to his literary mentor.  The Russell Atkins Black Box Theater is a space where young writers will get a chance to test out new combinations of words on new audiences. 

For his part, Atkins says he’s still not comfortable with all the recent accolades.

"The fellows keep telling me that I did this or I did that, and I say: 'No, don't put too much stock in that,'" he says.  "But, once in a while when I think of it, I am putting stock into it myself."

And so, it sounds like Russell Atkins is okay with a little more praise as his city celebrates a native son and his magical way with words.

Russell Atkins will receive the Cleveland Arts Prize for Lifetime Achievement, along with the other 2017 honorees, at a ceremony Thursday evening at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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