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Says Newman: "Our literary agenda is to promote accessible poetry. In the early '90s, poetry had been taken over by academics. It was obscure, unmoving poetry, and it was the only kind most people would come across. We want to promote poetry that an intelligent, educated reader would enjoy — not necessarily an MFA or Ph.D. candidate. You don't have to compromise quality to be accessible."
It also helps, adds Newman, if it's funny. "Anything that makes me laugh has an edge." A recent issue featured one poem entitled, "To the Stranger Who Passed Out in My House," and another that begins, "For I will consider the Guinea worm."
From May to November, when River Styx accepts submissions, it receives about 3,000 poems, 300 stories and 50 essays each week. It has the largest mailbox in the Centene Center. Each manuscript is read by three published writers. Newman tries to write a personal note on each rejection letter. "We don't reject work lightly," he says.
Compared to other literary journals, River Styx is slender, but this is by design. Newman prefers that each issue run no more than 100 pages. "Some other magazines I won't even open," he says. "They're so thick, it can be intimidating. I like a magazine to be digestible. You can read an entire issue in a couple of sittings." He pauses. "That may be a reflection of my own attention span."
Though the magazine maintains a Web site, there are no plans to publish online. For one thing, says Christine Portell, president of the board of directors, "No one on board has the Web skills." For another, the editors prefer print. "We don't discuss going online much," says Michael Nye. "Reading still feels personal, despite the new media. There's something about curling up on a couch with a book, being alone, underlining and writing in the margins. That's not something we want to move away from."
River Styx remains a little magazine in every sense of the word. It aspires to be part of an old tradition of small magazines that discover major work, dating back to the 1840s when The Dial (which had a circulation of 300) first published Henry David Thoreau. Most of these magazines, like The Paris Review and Poetry, come from much larger cities or are under the auspices of a college, like The Kenyon Review. River Styx's circulation of 2,000 is considered respectable, but most copies go to subscribers and libraries rather than to bookstores — and only one-third of those are in the St. Louis area.
"We're never going to be huge in terms of actual subscriptions," Newman says. "We just don't have the personnel to market nationally and locally." Most of the magazine's $60,000 annual budget goes toward rent, postage and printing costs. Of the 30-some staff members, Newman and Nye are the only ones who get paid. "The people who work there — the interns, the volunteers, the readers — do it because of their love of art and literature," says Portell.
The magazine covers almost all its costs through grants from arts organizations and private donations. The Missouri Arts Council has helped support River Styx since its inception, and the magazine also receives funding from the Regional Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts. "They've been terrific," says Nye, who, in addition to reading fiction and essay submissions, spends much of his time writing grant applications. "They know we put out a quality reading series and magazine. As long as we do our jobs well, it works out fine. We haven't had to sell our blood or urine."
Despite its relative obscurity, River Styx is well respected among writers and poets nationwide. Albert Goldbarth is one of the most funny and prolific poets working in America today. He's been a Guggenheim fellow and twice won the National Book Critics Circle award for poetry. As a result, he can publish almost anywhere he pleases. So why does he continue to send his work to River Styx? "There are other journals that are roughly equivalent that don't have the same nuts-and-bolts quality, page for page, that you find in River Styx," he explains. Also, "I write so fucking much, I have to publish it all somewhere."
Many writers hear of River Styx through its listing in Writer's Market. "We get poets from all walks of life," Newman says. "Some people are in MFA programs. We get a lot of doctors. Aside from English teachers, that's the most-represented profession. I don't know why. We get some from prisons. Those are handwritten on lined paper." River Styx has yet to publish a poem by an inmate, but, says Newman, "some have come close."
"I've been amazed at the wide variety of poetry," says Juliane Dharna, a River Styx intern since last August. "Some stuff is really terrible and some is really good. There's a lot in the middle. I've learned a lot about the concerns of people. People love sex. And food." And sometimes, more esoteric subjects: Recently, the magazine received a 22-part verse meditation on the Hebrew alphabet.
Before River Styx the magazine, there was River Styx the reading series at Duff's Restaurant, which began in 1974. "The poets were looking for a place to perform," remembers Duff's owner, Karen Duffy, who keeps two thick scrapbooks of programs, photos and press clippings. "So my first husband [Dan Duffy] offered to let them do it here and pass the hat around, and everyone got a share. Some got paid nothing. We've had the same podium since 1974. We share it with Left Bank Books across the street. That podium has magic. So many famous people have stood there."