Russell Atkins was born in Cleveland, Ohio, on February 25, 1926. Raised by his mother, grandmother, and aunt, Atkins began to study piano at age seven. He later studied music at the Cleveland School of the Arts and the Cleveland Institute of Music.
Atkins’s first published poem appeared in the avant-garde magazine, the View in 1947. He befriended Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes who published Atkins’s “Poem” in the anthology The Poetry of the Negro, 1746–1970 (Doubleday, 1970). In the 1950s, Atkins developed friendships with Amiri Baraka (then, LeRoi Jones) and Marianne Moore, who read Atkins’s poem “Trainyard at Night” on the radio. Located aesthetically between the American avant-garde and the Black Arts Movement, Atkins cofounded the small avant-garde journal Free Lance: a magazine of poetry and prose with his friend, Adelaide Simon. The first issue appeared in 1952 with an introduction by Langston Hughes and ran until 1980. In his 1955 essay “A Psychovisual Perspective for ‘Musical’ Composition,” Atkins posits that music follows a visual logic and, thus, should be written for the eye rather than the ear.
Atkins’s published works include both chapbooks and poetry collections published by small presses. His chapbooks include Whichever (The Free Lance Press, 1978); Maleficium (The Free Lance Press, 1971); The Nail, to Be Set to Music (The Free Lance Press, 1970); Heretofore (Paul Breman, 1968); Spyrytual (7 Flowers Press, 1966); Objects 2 (Renegade Press, 1963); Objects (Hearse Press, 1961); Phenomena (Wilberforce University Press, 1961); and A Podium Presentation (Poetry Seminar Press, 1960). Here In The (Cleveland State University Poetry Center, 1976) is Atkins’s only full-length collection. Atkins also published the verse-plays The Abortionist and The Corpse: Two Poetic Dramas To Be Set To Music (The Free Lance Press, 1963). Both had originally been published in 1954—The Abortionist was first printed in Free Lance magazine, while The Corpse was first published in the Western Review, a journal issued by Iowa State University. In 2013, poets Michael Dumanis and Kevin Prufer edited Russell Atkins: On the Life and Work of an American Master, published by Pleiades Press, which includes much of Atkins's poetry, six essays, and The Abortionist. In 2019, Prufer coedited World’d Too Much: Selected Poems of Russell Atkins with poet Robert E. McDonough, published by Cleveland State University Poetry Center.
In 2017, Atkins was awarded the Cleveland Arts Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Literature. In the same year, a Cleveland street was named in his honor.
Atkins developed a method of poetry composition that he called “phenomenalism,” in which images and sounds expand on semantic meaning. He has also often been associated with the Concrete poetry movement. Poet Patrick James Dunagan distinguishes Atkins’s work for its ability to “[cross] over traditional divisions of genre, style, and form” and compares Atkins’s verse rhythms to those of Gerard Manley Hopkins and his early experiments with typography to the work of e.e. cummings.
Atkins lives in Cleveland, where he has lived and worked for much of his life.