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"let's start a magazine
to hell with literature
we want something redblooded...
something authentic and delirious
you know something genuine
like a mark in a toilet"
— e. e. cummings
Richard Newman has spent the past thirteen years working to keep St. Louis' oldest literary magazine alive. It has not been an easy task. "Literature and poetry are never going to have a huge audience," concedes the 41-year-old editor of River Styx. "We're not in the checkout aisle of the grocery store — not that I expect that, but it would be fun."
Tall and lanky with thinning brown hair that sticks up from his forehead, Newman says most magazines generally go under for two reasons: "First, lack of funding. Second, the editors get burned out." River Styx has in fact nearly perished on numerous occasions. Founded in 1975 by a group of Washington University graduate students in rebellion against bloodless academic poetry, the magazine remains — 33 years and 75 issues later — an independent nonprofit, overseen by a board of directors rather than a university or a corporation.
Virtually bereft of advertising, River Styx has survived bankruptcy, weathered an IRS probe, and endured endless rants about the public's indifference toward reading in general and poetry in particular. "Poetry is definitely not dead," insists Newman. "We're awash in submissions." In fact, three new issues appear every year, and dozens of writers still come to Duff's Restaurant in the Central West End for the magazine's monthly poetry and fiction readings. "You get a more encompassing view of literature from the readings," Newman explains. "I do believe literature and poetry should be heard as well as read."
The source of River Styx is a small two-room office in the Centene Center for the Arts, a former Masonic temple in Midtown. Newman and his staff moved here two years ago after the ceiling in their old office on Grand Boulevard collapsed twice and the toilet exploded. "It was like Niagara Falls," recalls Newman. "We had to evacuate. We thought we'd lost our archives and art. We came back into the office and it was like a steam bath. All the art was wavy."
The archives survived. Decades of back issues of River Styx have migrated to the Centene Center, where they fill a small alcove off the office's main room. Boxes of manuscripts to be entered into the database and sent out to readers sit on the floor and on shelves. There are piles of thank-you notes for donations and postcards acknowledging receipt of manuscripts. There's also a comfortable olive green couch and a desk, bare except for the PC belonging to managing editor Michael Nye. A long folding table holds three more PCs and a shiny Mac used by a rotating assemblage of volunteers and interns. Newman considers it his duty to instruct the interns on the finer points of beer, basketball and where they might find alligator jerky.
Though officially River Styx's office hours are Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday afternoons from 2 until 6 p.m., Newman is almost always working inside his tiny cluttered office, in his car, or at home in Soulard. He reads manuscripts, chooses art and plans the readings at Duff's. "It's like a full-time job I do continually," he says. He earns $10,000 a year editing River Styx and cobbles together the rest of his living from freelance writing and teaching at Washington University and the Florissant Valley branch of St. Louis Community College.
Newman grew up in southern Indiana and moved here to attend Washington University. He stayed on after graduating for three reasons: River Styx; his wife Kara; and his twelve-year-old daughter Natalie, of whom he has joint custody and who is credited in the magazine's masthead as "office help." He's published one book of his own poetry and four chapbooks. The most recent one, 24 Tall Boys: Dark Verse for Light Times, came out last fall. His favorite poets include Robert Frost, Philip Larkin, W. H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Thomas Hardy and Shakespeare. "They're formal, musical and clear," he says. "But if everything in the magazine were like that, it would be pretty boring."
Newman tries to make every issue of River Styx as diverse as possible, both in terms of the published works and the writers. At the same time, he feels an obligation to connect with the average reader, which usually rules out obscure poetry — much to the chagrin of former editors, who intended the magazine to be a showcase for ethnic and experimental poetry.
"We saw River Styx as a journal that embraced everyone in the world," says Quincy Troupe, the poet and biographer of Miles Davis, and one of the magazine's editors in the 1970s and '80s. "The magazine started to go another way when Richard came. Richard had his own ideas. This isn't a criticism, but his ideas weren't as multicultural as mine. He's got the St. Louis mindset, which is — more white. People in St. Louis are very conservative. I understand the conservative vision, but I don't have to live with it."
(Troupe says he and Newman had a falling out when Newman refused to publish an excerpt from Charles Johnson's National Book Award-winning novel Middle Passage. However, Middle Passage appeared in 1990, long before Newman took over River Styx. Newman says he has no memory of the incident.)