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.)
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."
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.
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."