Russell Atkins

(b. 1926)

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(b. 1926), poet, composer, theorist, editor,

and leading innovator in experimental artistic movements of the 1940s through the 1970s. Born 25 February 1926 in Cleveland, Ohio, Russell Atkins began studying piano at age seven with his mother. From childhood, he exhibited talent in painting, drawing, music, and writing. By age thirteen he had won several poetry contests. Atkins published his first poem in 1944 in his high school yearbook. With the support of prominent literary figures, Atkins published his poetry in journals and newspapers, including Experiment (1947–1951) and the New York Times (1951).

Atkins continued his studies of music, performance, and the visual arts through Cleveland College, Cleveland Music School Settlement, Cleveland Institute of Music, Karamu Theatre, and Cleveland School of Art. Musical training is a key to Atkins's poetic style since musical structures are central in his writing.

In 1950 Atkins cofounded what is probably the oldest black-owned literary magazine, Free Lance, a publication of avant-garde writing that contributed to the development of New American poetry. He created a style of concrete poetry in which visual presentation of words on the page predominates. He experimented stylistically with the extreme use of the apostrophe, embedding of words within words, and use of continuous words. In the mid- 1950s he began utilizing an abstract technique he called “phenomenalism,” which juxtaposed unfamiliar and familiar elements. Atkins advocated using the imagination “to exploit range, to create a body of effect, event, colors, characteristics, moods, verbal stresses pushed to a maximum.” He did not try to make his work comprehensible to casual readers but strove for dense complexity of meaning.

Atkins experimented with “poems in play forms,” publishing two plays in 1954, The Abortionist and The Corpse. Like his poetry, his plays radically challenged conventions of both form and content.

In its 1955–1956 issue, Free Lance published Atkins's influential article, “A Psychovisual Perspective for ‘Musical’ Composition”. Using Gestalt theory of pattern formation, Atkins argues for the brain and not the ear as the focus of composition.

In 1960 Atkins published his first collection of poetry, A Podium Presentation. Subsequent volumes include Phenomena (1961), Objects (1963), Objects 2 (1964), Heretofore (1968), The Nail, to Be Set to Music (1970), Maleficium (1971), Here in The (1976), and Whichever (1978).

Eugene Redmond, Drumvoices: The Mission of Afro-American Poetry, A Critical History, 1976.Ronald Henry High, “Russell Atkins,” in DLB, vol. 41, Afro-American Poets since 1955, eds. Trudier Harris and Thadious M. Davis, 1985, pp. 24–32.

Jennifer Burton

Subjects: Literature.

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