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In its first twenty years, River Styx published work by Allen Ginsberg, Jorge Luis Borges, Grace Paley, Ntozake Shange, Derek Walcott, Margaret Atwood and Terry McMillan, as well as St. Louis writers like William Gass, Howard Nemerov and Mona Van Duyn. ("I don't know if they all sent their best work," says Albert Goldbarth, "but they're stellar names.") The magazine paid them $5 a poem. "It was minimal," Castro admits, "but we wanted to establish a precedent. We wanted to show we acknowledged the value of their work and gave what we could afford in exchange. It was rarely about the money. Poets understand that small magazines are the foundation of literature in this country."
But by the early 1990s, River Styx was again on the verge of dying. An anticipated $3,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts had fallen through and the magazine was broke. ("We believe it was because of controversial photos of full-frontal male nudes," Castro says.) It was also bereft of editors: Jan Castro had quit, and Michael Castro and Troupe wanted more time to pursue their own writing and academic careers. The magazine went on a publishing hiatus. No one on the board had bothered to keep tabs on the magazine's day-to-day operations, and its finances were in chaos. The IRS wrote to inquire why River Styx had not paid payroll taxes for two years.
"There was long-term exhaustion from all the struggles to keep the organization going," says Barry Liebman, then a member of the River Styx board. "We essentially voted to disband. I don't remember how it happened. There was a meeting and somebody made a motion and somebody else seconded and that was it."
There was one person, though, who was unwilling to let River Styx die. Donna Charron, a former board member, had recently purchased the Midtown Arts Center. "I thought it was my calling to promote artists," she recollects. "When I heard that River Styx was in trouble and the board was overwhelmed, I called and made an offer for them to resign and elect Michael Castro and me instead. Being unoverwhelmable, I took it from there." (Coincidentally, the boatman who rowed the dead across the mythical River Styx was named Charon.)
Charron gave the magazine office space in the Arts Center and made arrangements with the IRS to pay its taxes. In 1994 she noticed that Richard Newman, then a 28-year-old poet who hung around the Arts Center, had serious editorial potential. "Richard was very bright," says Charron. "He had a love of literature. I told him we couldn't pay him very much, but could he?"
"I was a naive, energetic fool," Newman says. "I also wanted to see what it would be like on the other end of the rejection letter."
By the time Newman inherited River Styx, it hadn't published an issue for a year and a half. The subscription list had dwindled to less than 100 names. "We had so few magazines to send out," Newman recalls, "we barely had enough for bulk mail." A disgruntled volunteer who believed River Styx owed her money for her time was holding the magazine's lone computer — which contained the subscriber database — hostage.
During his first year as editor, Newman and a small volunteer staff produced seven issues of the magazine to bring it back to its regular triannual publication schedule. He launched an aggressive letter-writing campaign to attract new subscribers and established an annual poetry contest, charging a $20 entry fee that included a year's subscription.
"It was crazy," he says. "I don't know how we did it. If someone dropped this on me now, I would pass."
When Richard Newman reads a poetry submission, he thinks of the two rubber stamps the British writers and editors Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis kept on their desks. One read, "What does this mean?" The other, "Why should I care?" The same questions could be asked to justify the continued existence of River Styx. What does the magazine mean for St. Louis? And why should anybody care if it survives?
"These things are incremental," says Left Bank's Barry Liebman. "Once a city starts losing institutions it thinks aren't going away, it's a shock. There's a hole, and the whole culture loses. People starting out writing see a local magazine as a chance to get their own work published if it's good enough. It's important. It's an entrée into the larger literary world."
"Literary magazines die all the time," says Mary Jo Bang, director of Washington University's writing program. "It's expensive. More and more people are going to the Internet. There's the risk River Styx would die, but a new magazine would start in its place. Literary journals publish closer to when the work is written. It may not survive or make it into a book, but it tells what's going on at any given moment."
Newman agrees. "Literature, and especially poetry, is the great human dialogue we have with ourselves, and also with the past," he says. "It's about the human condition: Why live? Why suffer? What's funny? What's sad? What's erotic? What tastes good? It's a small niche to contemplate the life you live."