The End of the World Blues from Issue 97
When I first took over editing River Styx, the magazine was seven issues behind schedule with no issue printed in a year and a half. After I caught up on the magazine’s obligations to publish what my predecessors had contracted, I told myself that as much fun as I was having—and I was having a ball—I would only do the job for eight years.
Twenty-two years and fifty-two issues later, after countless thousands of poems and stories and essays, hundreds and hundreds of readings, and a thick collection of mail (both love and hate, little in between), I’m finally stepping down as editor and series director. Although there’s still some room for my successors to choose a few pieces in here, ol’ 97 is my last.
No hoopla, no theme, no retrospective, no greatest hits. Issue #97 is a typical River Styx issue, a collection of literature and art that runs a wide range in style and voice. It’s “lively and diverse,” as we’ve said for two decades in the press releases and grant requests.
I don’t always know what characterizes a River Styx poem, story, essay, or play. Many times in the past we’ve had staff readers and editors say they liked a certain piece but didn’t think it fit River Styx. Usually this comment made me want to read the piece. Usually I agreed with them but not always. An editor once almost rejected some prose poetry by Lance Larsen, thinking we wouldn’t like prose poetry, but those poems have been some of my favorite pieces we’ve ever published, even though I’m agnostic about prose poetry.
One thing that has characterized River Styx, both our poetry and prose, has been not so much accessibility but emotional content. Yes, I love much formal poetry and musical language in both poetry and prose, but if a piece doesn’t move me, I can’t sustain much interest. It’s one of the reasons being an editor appealed to me.
“We seem to be producing a new kind of bad poetry,” Philip Larkin once wrote in an essay called “The Pleasure Principle.” “Not the old kind that tries to move the reader but fails, but one that does not even try.” That was sixty years ago. I often wonder what Larkin would say about creative writing today. The academics have won, and even beyond them, the administrators have won. Fewer people want to say anything moving, out of fear of being seen as sentimental or from the fear of losing (or never getting) a job.
Whether they admit it or not, all literary editors have an ax to grind, some axes larger and flashier than others. Magazine editors create a vision of the future from the immediate present. They sort through literally thousands of manuscripts and select the ones they believe should be published, the voices they feel should be heard above the din of other voices wanting to be heard. Magazines are the subjective filtering system that singles out what the editors believe you should read so you don’t have to read all those thousands and thousands of submissions. Magazines are the literary trenches, the pulse of what is happening at that given moment, and editors are the gatekeepers, the experts with the stethoscopes. Who anoints them as such? Nobody. They anoint themselves. I did. I was anointed because no one else wanted the job. And my ax to grind was poetry and prose that was moving. I was sick of reading pretentious academic poetry and language poetry that left me cold and bored. I wanted humor and sorrow, song and story, surprise and tradition. And I knew plenty of other people who wanted these things too.
When I first started editing the magazine, I used my neighbors across the street as a litmus test. They were general educated readers, not MFA graduates. An architect and a horticulturalist, they spoke several languages between them but not MFA gobbledygook. They loved to read and they loved short fiction and poetry and personal essays. They were my ideal audience, and in many ways, even though we’ve all divorced and moved several times and long lost touch, they have been all these years. Philip Larkin is still my litmus test, too, as are our seasonal crops of young interns. I have always valued the opinions of people who read for pleasure, the joy of reading, the love of literature, not for hip literary trends and careerist hamster wheels, not work that is more about language and ego than what it means to be fully and deeply alive as a human being. I hope never to have to read a poem about light again.
I’m also stepping out of our literary times, at least for now. We live in the Age of the Administrator. The administrators control the universities, which are now run on corporate models where the chancellors and provosts and endless deanlets make exorbitant sums of money while the people doing the actual teaching, the reason most people attend college and universities, live in poverty. It is not uncommon for a college or university to rely on 80% adjuncts now. Similarly, arts organizations and granting agencies have adopted this corporate model where the top administrators make huge sums of money and in turn give huge sums of money to a handful of arts organizations, with the executive directors of these organizations pulling huge salaries, while smaller, independent, and often more daring and innovative arts organizations make crumbs. I am not an administrator, and increasingly, the job has demanded that I function as one and less as a curator, a series director, an editor. Every year, our costs go up and our grants get smaller, so we spend more time asking more and more people for grants and money or trying to be more sustainable or cutting more costs. It’s the price of being independent and not affiliated with a university, though many of the magazines I’ve loved over the years that were affiliated with a university have been trimmed or eliminated completely.
Alas, at some time over the last year or two, in the course of endless fundraising and reading so many submissions, I have lost the joy of reading, my pleasure principle. That joy of reading is why I started editing this magazine in the first place, why I was willing to do so for no pay whatsoever in those early years, and why I’m now moving on. I want the joy back. Also, I hope someone else can do a better job, especially with fundraising, which is not my gift.
In August I began teaching on at the College of Marshall Islands. It is on Majuro, an atoll in the Pacific. I am surrounded by coconut trees, banana trees, simplicity, heartbreaking poverty, kindness and heartbreaking generosity, and a lagoon and ocean waters and skies with endless shades of blues, blues I had never imagined, blues we have no words for. I brought a stack of books, a couple notebooks, and a laptop. I hope to regain my love of writing and especially my love of reading. I’m also relieved not to have to beg for low-paying adjunct jobs to supplement River Styx. Many people call this place the end of the world, and it often looks like it on this coral reef surrounded by water all the way to every horizon, but on the airplane here I crossed the dateline into tomorrow, so it could just as easily be the beginning of the world.
Despite the long hours, abysmal pay, and eventual burnout, editing River Styx has been the only job I’ve ever loved. And even more than making each issue and finding the art and bringing so many talented writers to our podium every month, I’ll miss the community the most. I’ll miss the readers and writers, poets and prose writers and dramatists, teachers and students, interns and editors, neighbors and friends, and of course the wonderful audiences who have made up the River Styx family. I’ll miss the correspondence with writers and readers, and I’ll miss the dialogue that happens while making any given issue, that happens within any given issue, the long ongoing dialogue that is literature itself and has been since before Homer, and the dialogue that continues to happen after the literature appears in print and goes into the world. It’s been a helluva conversation.
I’ll even miss the hate mail. At least most of it was moving.
—Richard Newman, Majuro, September, 2016
Introduction from Issue 96
“. . . man is by nature a political animal, and a man that is by nature and not merely by fortune citiless is either low in the scale of humanity or above it . . .”
In forty-two years of issues, many of them themed, we’ve never tried a political issue. If anything, we’ve probably avoided overtly political work as it can often sound preachy and un-nuanced, one-dimensional and didactic, and, of course, clichéd. For most of my life, I’ve held with Auden, who said, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and I’ve been to and read in enough 100 Thousand Poets for Change readings to know that the only minds they tend to change are those of people on the fence about whether or not they like poetry.
But then Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, and the subsequent tensions and violence tore our city apart. While those events raged, another black man, VonDerrit Myers Jr., was shot and killed by a white off-duty police officer. The victim was my neighbor’s nephew. I never knew him, but I heard he’d had previous brushes with the law and read that he had a gun and fired three shots while running away. Those shots plus the officer’s, twenty in all, sparked a powder keg under our South Grand neighborhood, and soon afterward the streets and air outside our offices were filled with protestors, reporters, live bloggers, riot police, helicopters, tear gas, vandalism, and looting.
Despite the fact that we tend to stay in our little arts bubble—where we embrace and celebrate diversity and goodwill through literature—politics (and angry politics with a component of violence) had literally come to our doorstep. Some of the photos from the series in this issue were taken right outside our front windows.
One of the most heartbreaking days of my life was walking to the River Styx office one morning—the morning after a night of protests, vandalism, and lootings—stepping over broken glass and tear gas canisters, and seeing friends’ and neighbors’ storefront windows broken out. It’s a beautiful, diverse neighborhood, one of the gems of St. Louis, but on that morning it looked like a war zone.
Since then, it feels like everything has become political, especially in this election season. As Carol Hanisch wrote, galvanizing feminist action in 1970, “The personal is political.” For us, the political had become personal.
I recently spent a spring break writing trip in Gulfport, Mississippi, which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina—and other hurricanes before it. An astonishing amount of dead sea life—fish, small sharks, and even large dolphins—had been washing up on the beach as a result of oil spills, drilling, and agricultural pollutants. It was impossible not to get into a discussion about it with the few people also walking the beach, which inevitably led to politics. Several people there blamed Obama, the logic of which escapes me, but I went down to write, not agitate politically. While dipping beignets in my coffee at Port City Café, I overheard two men, who had previously been extremely polite to me and kind to my dog Ginger at my feet, say, “If Trump doesn’t get the Republican nomination, there will be a war.”
Two average dog-loving guys spoke as casually about a civil war as if it were the World Series. In many ways our country is already at war, and this issue reflects those divisions: racial, religious, gender, marital, economic, and class.
Putting this issue together made me realize that almost everything is political—every decision we made regarding what to include or not to include was political. Do we have enough women and people of color represented? Do we need more pieces about fracking and gay marriage? (We received a lot of those.) All art is political, and I mean art with a capital A. All arts become political when funding, public grants, awards, and university jobs come into play.
Almost every writer, artist, and editor I know works in higher education, which has grown more political than ever. The reliance on and exploitation of adjuncts at poverty-level wages contrasts to millionaire football coaches (the now outgoing University of Missouri football coach made $3,768,889 his last year) and millionaire chancellors (the Washington University chancellor here in St. Louis makes $1.4 million a year). Across the country, adjuncts are fighting to unionize and negotiate contracts for livable wages. And despite many campuses relying on 70–85 percent adjuncts, college tuition is now unaffordable for all but a few. College administrators are decimating humanities programs while spending vast amounts on sports stadiums. The state of higher education is quickly becoming one of our country’s most pressing political issues, and two pieces here deal with university politics head-on.
Across campuses or outside political rallies (or both when schools like Washington University in St. Louis host presidential debates), the anger is so palpable you can smell it.
After the days of unrest and some tense nights in our neighborhood, we created a new reading series called Lost Poets. We wanted to host events at a different venue every other month, a movable reading series, to bring the neighborhood together, to include as many different voices as possible rhyming, rhapsodizing, shouting, declaiming, storytelling, enlightening us, or making us laugh. Lost Poets hasn’t been perfect—some people will always complain, as is their right—but we’re trying to build community and bridge differences, neighborhood and citywide. We wanted the series to be as inclusive as possible, with writers from spoken word backgrounds to academics from some of the local universities to writers in between. We wanted to show people that when they steal air conditioners from Café Natasha or throw bricks through a window of Edward E. Jones investments, they may think they’re lashing out at The Man, but they’re actually hurting people like Affifa, a dear friend and neighbor who left Afghanistan to raise her family here in St. Louis. She works harder than anyone I know. She lets us use her fax machine in her investments office and puts up with legions of staff and interns stomping and clomping right above her office.
River Styx has always been a community-based organization, with our regular reading series at the Tavern of Fine Arts and our workshops. But our community has spread out across the world. With Lost Poets, we wanted to create community more than ever—a forum for different voices—and even included some law-enforcement officers who wrote poetry and memoir.
Like the Lost Poets reading series, we wanted this political issue to provide a forum for thoughts on politics, religion, and social justice. We wanted River Styx #96 to be a community of writers, a city of voices, not “citiless,” as Aristotle calls it. This issue features writers and artists from Ferguson to Poland, and, as in all our issues, we tried to include as many different points of view and demographics as possible. Our issue won’t change the world or make things happen, but at least it will be thoughtful and civil, entertaining and moving.
Finally, after compiling these works—stories, poems, essays, and art—we noticed that not one piece we published or received seemed to advocate the position that our political system is working. Not one “I voted and felt good about it” poem. Our contributors here express frustration over racial and religious discrimination, marriage inequality, the political primary process, earthquakes as a result of fracking, adjunct exploitation, and economic disparity. Which makes me think that despite the ugliness and messiness that is democracy, at least we can express this dissent, write it, publish it, and distribute it. At least for now.
—Richard Newman, June, 2016
Introduction from Issue 94
“Revenge, the sweetest morsel to the mouth that ever was cooked in hell.”
—Walter Scott, The Heart of Mid-Lothian
Years ago, a good friend’s wife up and went to Mexico for a month with some other man, leaving him with their two-year-old daughter. Rather than live with her narcissism for the rest of his life, he decided to get a divorce, and several of us took him out for drinks to commiserate. Another friend reached out and squeezed his shoulder and said, “The best revenge is a long, happy life.”
That friend is an atheist Jew who teaches ancient Greek ethical philosophy at a Jesuit university, and for all his wisdom and breadth of learning, it was the best he could come up with. What he meant is the best action to take is not taking direct action against her (other than divorce) but choosing to act above it and not let her further ruin his life or get in the way of his future happiness, which she would miss out on sharing with him. It was good advice. And that evening I learned something about revenge—it is equal parts a hank-ering for justice and also a choice or an action by the person who seeks it.
The justice part of revenge is best de-scribed as something we can taste or eat—revenge served cold or steaming right out of hell. Revenge can be satisfying as a meal—even if delayed—and time doesn’t necessarily diminish our appetite for justice. We can feast on just desserts any time and never fill up. As Alfred Hitchcock observed, “Revenge is sweet and not fattening.”
Revenge also requires a conscious choice and some kind of action by the person wanting justice. It is not passive. It is not random, and it is distinct from, say, schadenfreude, which can be a part of revenge but isn’t always necessary to it.
We received twice as many submissions for this Revenge issue than other themes. In fact, we continue to receive them long after the deadline. Apparently writers can’t get enough revenge, and obviously we hope none of the writers whose work we couldn’t use decide to take revenge on us. Most of the work we received—though perhaps good or entertaining—simply wasn’t vengeful. Invective, anger, or random violence more than revenge typified our submissions, though we made a couple exceptions to include curses here if the type of justice wanted seemed particularly original.
Most of us never act on our vengeful fantasies, preferring to nurture them in private and hopefully forget about them. Many of us achieve revenge vicariously through others—or in film and literature. But revenge is a deep-seeded urge, probably biological, that seeps from our marrow. I think about how often we root for justice and revenge even when horrible, unsavory characters are the ones “wronged”—the murderous family in The Godfather saga, the ruthless and manipulative Walter White in Breaking Bad. Our urge for justice transcends morality or common decency.
To satisfy some of those urges, we have put together this issue, dedicated to all our readers who have hungered for revenge. Bon appétit.
Not the Same Ode Same Ode from Issue 90
Sixteen years ago I heard Robert Pinsky read in a hot, crowded room at Washington University, where he announced he was bringing back the ode. “Not likely,” I remember thinking. I was unfamiliar with Pinsky’s work at the time, but his poems and his reading impressed me enough to whisper to my friend midway through that this guy was really good and would be our next Poet Laureate.
“Nah,” she said. “He probably has poems about cunnilingus or left wing radical politics or something. He’s not what they’re looking for.”
The next day we learned that Pinsky had been appointed US Poet Laureate. He’d known the whole time but couldn’t say. She was wrong, but so was I: in retrospect, I believe Pinsky had a lot to do with bringing back the ode. He reintroduced me to a form I hadn’t thought much about since my undergrad days, if I’d thought much about it at all.
Odes have come a long way since antiquity, when they marked solemn occasions, elevated the state, and kissed the asses of politicians and fellow poets. I can’t imagine poets today seriously praising any politicians. Maybe the NEA would be better funded if we did. Although I love Keats’ odes and revisit them over and over, my favorite contemporary odes tend to fall more into the Neruda esthetic of praising common things, unlikely and ordinary things, finding the praiseworthy in the ugly and dismissed, seeing the familiar world a new way, and finding perverse joy in turning the ordinary world upside-down. Making something new and rooting for the underdog: two of the greatest American traditions.
The odes in this issue all feel distinctly American. They are individual in shape and tone, irreverent, and often celebratory of the small things that make us American—porches, possums, and apricot face scrub. They meditate on Americana and immigration. And being American, some carry a note of anti-ode.
Most of these odes are informal, American-casual. Three are formally composed. The poems range from six lines to 160. But one trait that helps them feel American is their ambivalence and distinctive lyric crisis: besides praising the unlikely, many turn on the present in comparison to a remembered American past, often flavored with nostalgia. Motels along route 66 have disappeared, though many were pretty scuzzy. Dylan’s singing is now terrible. Our distinctly childhoods are gone and probably remembered better than they ever were. The prose odes achieve this tone as well—as with happy endings, celebrations and praise are more interesting and feel more earned with ambivalence and humble beginnings.
My all-time favorite poems often contain a turn—a duality, a flip side of the coin, a complexity—and nearly every ode in this issue hinges on at least one turn that expresses the simultaneous joy and embarrassment we feel as Americans. Home Depot embodies our mass-produced disposable culture, but it’s hard to walk through its rich aisles in a hurry. If we listen beneath the cheese and overfamiliarity, the Beach Boys’ music is rich and glorious. Lobsters, though their preparation is cruel and our personal history associated with them may be sordid and full of disappointment, continue to taste delicious and mark important occasions on American tables.
And speaking of taste, even the odes to literature and language ruminate on the duality of where we came from while making the delicious sounds of where we are now—here traced through the letter R or obsolete words. All the odes we’ve selected here, regardless of their subject, savor the way we speak, our accents, our dialects, and our distinctly American language. We received thousands of odes, many more than we could use. After our Circles of Hell issue and our End of the World issue, it was wonderful to read poems of celebration and praise. Thanks to everyone who submitted poems, for celebrating the things of this world that make us who we are—and for helping bring back the ode.
Don’t Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here from Issue 85
When we first started proofing our Circles of Hell issue, we realized some authors referred to hell and some to Hell. We talked briefly about regularizing the capitalization but decided to defer to the authors’ instincts. Hell vs. hell depends on an author’s upbringing and demographics—as kids we dared not say it aloud and only spelled it with double toothpicks—but also on whether the author refers to a specific place or a metaphorical concept. Most of the Bibles and all of the dictionaries we looked through kept a lowercase hell, yet much of the theological writings we found, especially online, referred to uppercase Hell as well as Heaven.
A couple of our authors even used Hell and hell interchangeably in early drafts, showing that people can’t seem to make up their minds about a place they can only imagine. Hades, sheol, heaven, hell, hel, diyu, naraka, and jahannam include infinite conceptions of an afterlife or underworld—eternal limbos, neutral weigh stations between lives, places of rewards and punishments—which in all variations must expand to accommodate the incoming. Interestingly, the Christian hell seems to take its name from the Norse goddess Hel, who rules over a portion of the dead—those who die of sickness and old age.
All these notions of a hell probably indicate that, for many of us, the prospect of no afterlife is more fearful than damnation, that even a place of eternal torment might be preferable (or at least more conceivable) to what we think of as our spirits simply winking out of existence. Milton wrote in Paradise Lost, “Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.” Both might beat “the sure extinction that we travel to,” that nothingness Larkin frets over in “Aubade.”
Most of the pieces in this issue, however, use hell as a metaphor to describe states of existence in our real lives. They depict living souls consumed by some of the seven deadly sins, ruined by guilt or misery, grieving for dead loved ones, or even spanning long and endlessly boring lives. Some find, as Sartre did, that hell is each other while others find that hell is not having a someone. As our staff of editors waded through several hundred submissions, we decided that although we wanted our theme of hell to be interpreted broadly and imaginatively, we at least wanted a specific reference to hell. Work about attending to a parent with Alzheimer’s or a tour of duty in Vietnam might be hellish, but we decided to narrow our gates to work which spelled out allusions to hell or specific sins which lead us there. Otherwise we’d still be reading for this issue. It would have become our eternal hell, and the issue would have had to expand indefinitely to accommodate everyone’s hell because so much of life is hell. But hell can also be a place of wonder, intricate beauty, and imagination. As Twain said, “Go to Heaven for the climate, Hell for the company.”
Welcome to our hell. Make yourself at home.
Introduction from Issue 76/77
This double issue collects the best literature and art about food
that we could find: food as sensuality, food as sustenance, food as an
introduction to a foreign culture, food as sex, food as power, food as class,
food as history, food as connection to family, or food as substitute for any
of those things.
We can eat with others or eat alone.
When we feel uncertain or insecure (say, on a
first date or attempting a conciliatory meeting
with an ex) we often dine together, “break
bread,” share a common act. Among our
first thoughts about upcoming birthdays,
holidays, and celebrations is what to
cook or eat. Eating alone can be an
extravagant indulgence, or it can be
perfunctory. It can also be horribly lonely.
Our culture’s preferences are reflected in
four-chair dinette sets and a scarcity of
restaurant tables or booths for one.
Reading and writing are usually solitary
acts, but this issue feels more like a banquet. We
planned it and created it from the most diverse
ingredients, sometimes squabbling and squawking
like too many cooks in the kitchen. Preparing
this issue, I realize that nothing tells us
more about who we are and where we come from
than the food we eat—and cook. If you don’t
believe me, try our contributors’ recipes in back.
Now we invite you to take your seat at our table.
Despite the different backgrounds, styles, schools,
and conventions (and of course, tastes), I like to think that we can all sit
together under one issue and do something honest and simple and
pleasurable: dig in.