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The reading series is so integral to River Styx's identity that when Washington University offered to give full funding to the magazine — but not the readings — Newman and the board refused outright. "We didn't want to split them up," Newman says.
"The Duff's series has had so many powerful readings," says Michael Castro, one of the magazine's founding editors. "People would say it's like no place else they'd ever read. It had a national reputation. If people had heard of Duff's, they'd want to read there. Bill Moyers once sent a crew and recorded Quincy Troupe doing a reading. There was great footage of audience reactions: laughing, going 'Yeah!' It's diverse, not like a university reading," continues Castro, an English professor at Lindenwood University. "It's people hanging out in a bar communing with each other. It's one of the special things poetry can do."
"The reading series was really packed," Troupe remembers. "At Duff's, there were all kinds of people: whites, Africans, African Americans, Latinos."
"It was not as intimidating to people who were new to poetry," says Jane O. Wayne, a St. Louis poet who has published in River Styx.
The River Styx readings combine poetry with other arts, particularly music. "River Styx was unbelievable in the old days," says Barry Liebman, a co-owner of Left Bank Books. "Arthur Brown — he died many years ago — was really a very performance poet. Music was essential to his poetry. He was really dynamic." One reading, Castro recalls, paired James Baldwin with gospel singer Willie Mae Ford Smith.
Like the magazine, the reading series has changed over the years. "They usually had music: two poets and a musician," Duffy remembers. "Now they don't have music very often. The people who were first involved were my age. Now it's a younger crowd. I've heard people say it's not as diverse."
The crowd has also grown more sedate. In the early days, a drunk and belligerent audience member once doused Castro with a pitcher of beer. Now the audience sits at Duffs' wooden tables, quietly listening to the readers and sipping glasses of wine. Except for Newman, who stands at the bar smoking and nursing a beer.
Duffy has never accepted payment for hosting the reading series. "All I do is open the door," she says. "I don't even have to write a poem. We don't make any money from it, unless there's a big crowd at the bar." Newman calls Duffy the best philanthropist in the world.
In the beginning, no one imagined River Styx would someday become a magazine. It started with young poets who met at various parties near Washington University. "Fueled by the countercultural spirit that was in the air, by fast food & circulating six-packs, by jugs & joints, we'd get together to get high on poetry," Michael Castro recalled in an essay he wrote on the occasion of the magazine's twelfth birthday. "We weren't there to analyze poetry...We were there to sound the poetry, to breathe it, to become energized by it."
Castro and his friends chose the name River Styx Poets for the title of a public-access radio show on KDNA-FM, devoted to poetry and storytelling. "The name River Styx was, of course, derived from the mythic river on which one journeys to the Underworld," Castro wrote. "We wanted, with it, to suggest, poetically, several things at once: our own 'underground' status in the poetic pecking order, our geographic location at the confluence of great & ancient rivers, & the 'underworld' of the subconscious streaming into the poetic act."
After the radio station was bought out by a commercial station, the poets used the name again for the printing press they established to publish their own newspaper, magazine and books. The press failed after less than a year, but during that time Castro had collected a pile of manuscripts, including poems by two nationally known poets, Jerome Rothenberg and David Meltzer. He edited them into a magazine. A journeyman in the Saint Louis University print shop volunteered to do the printing, and River Styx appeared in its now-present incarnation in 1975.
"It really was a one-shot ambition," Castro remembers. "But we got such a good response from the writers we sent it to. That encouraged us. Others in the group and our printer wanted to keep it going and we thought, 'If we can do it, let's do it.' We were amazed by what it led to. It served as a way of linking poets in this region to others."
Through friends in the Black Artists Group, Castro met Quincy Troupe, who, although he no longer lived in St. Louis, shared Castro's enthusiasm for multicultural poetry. Troupe joined Castro and Castro's wife, Jan, in an editorial triumvirate. "It was a big deal for any organization in St. Louis to be biracial," Michael Castro says. "We wanted to build something positive."
Troupe used his connections in the writing world to attract big-name poets and fiction writers to the St. Louis journal. "I ran a reading series in New York City and San Diego," he says. "I had a big budget. I'd call people up and say, 'You do want to do a reading, don't you? Well, you know what you've got to do. Send me work." And they did.