St. Louis journals make a lasting impression in the literary world

By Anne Earney - Photo by Jonathan Swegle

Styling: Anne Earney - Photo by Jonathan Swegle

Photography: Anne Earney - Photo by Jonathan Swegle

February 27, 2006

If you think literary journals are full of stuffy, inaccessible writing meant mostly for other writers, think again. Literary journals are full of interesting prose and poetry by great writers, all written and published for the love of the words.


And St. Louis readers are lucky; of at least a dozen journals in Missouri and Illinois, several rank among the best in the country. Boulevard, River Styx, Natural Bridge and Crab Orchard Review all publish compilations of fiction, poetry, essays, reviews and even interviews.


Although each journal is unique, they do have some things in common, such as small print runs (Boulevard leads the pack with 3,500 copies of each issue); financial support through university affiliation, grants or both; and, of course, a desire to find and publish the best writing.


“Literary magazines introduce us to writers we might not otherwise take a chance on,” said Kenneth E. Harrison Jr., editor of Natural Bridge. And it’s true. On its pages you’ll find cutting-edge fiction and poetry, including the newest work from established writers as well as great pieces from unfamiliar names. “With so many mass-circulation magazines dropping literary fiction altogether,” said Allison Joseph, editor of Crab Orchard Review, “literary journals are practically the only places to find new voices.”


The granddaddy of St. Louis’ literary journals is River Styx (www.riverstyx.org), edited by Richard Newman. Managing Editor Michael Nye said River Styx was founded in 1974 by “a group of St. Louis poets, including … Michael Castro, as an outlet for new, exciting poetry and the opportunity to print interviews with distinguished authors such as William Gass and Margaret Atwood.”


River Styx is unusual in that it has survived for 31 years without university support, living instead on a mixture of grants, subscriptions, fund raisers and private donations.


Today River Styx publishes literary fiction, poetry and essays. The journal is open to interviews but has not published one since 2003. The poetry tends to be “formal and lyrical in content,” Nye said, “in the style of Billy Collins and Ted Kooser.” Nye defined the River Styx idea of good writing as having “strong voices, concise verbs and images, and a sense of awe of the world.” The journal also includes artwork, tending toward images that are “both playful and serious at once.”


Most of the writing in River Styx is drawn from unsolicited submissions. “We hope the surprise we get from our first reads is transferred to the reader opening the journal for the first time,” Nye said. The next issue of River Styx will come out in April.


The powerhouse of St. Louis literary journals would be Boulevard (www.richardburgin.net), with the biggest print run and the biggest names. You’ll see many of the same writers on the pages of Boulevard as on lists of great modern writers: John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, Billy Collins, Ann Beattie – the list goes on and on.


Editor Richard Burgin said he incorporated Boulevard in 1984 “to provide a venue for the finest fiction, poetry and essays by renowned as well as unknown writers.”


The journal’s mostly volunteer staff includes a changing cast of characters of Saint Louis University faculty, graduate students and other writers, who put together quite an array of work for the journal, including short stories, poetry, memoirs, literary and art criticism, interviews, photography and graphic art. Boulevard features beautiful covers – surrealistic images certain to pique the interest of curious readers.


Boulevard has received many honors, including regular reprints of pieces first published in Boulevard in the annual “best of” anthologies, such as “Best American Short Stories” and “Best American Poetry.” In fact, there is no shortage of bragging to be done. It was listed by Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Charles Simic as one of the eight best literary magazines and was called “one of the half-dozen best literary journals” by the Philadelphia Enquirer.


“As a nonprofit institution,” Burgin said, “Boulevard considers only quality and is able to devote space to long stories, essays, poems and special features like our regular symposium” – forms of writing that are often overlooked because they don’t make money for publishers.


Boulevard is available by subscription and in more than 300 bookstores nationwide. The most recent issue came out this month.


Natural Bridge (www.umsl.edu/~natural) is the new kid on the literary block. Published since 1999 at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where the journal was founded by Editor in Chief Steven Schreiner, Natural Bridge offers biannual issues of fiction, poetry, literary nonfiction and literature in translation.


“Each issue features a guest editor,” said Harrison. “However, in lieu of always bringing in guest editors, the MFA faculty takes turns editing, though we have had outside guest editors in the past.” Each semester also brings a “fresh round of editorial assistants” or graduate students. Together with the changing editors, this “ensures a wide variety of contemporary literature and highest quality of different styles and aesthetical concerns,” said Harrison.


Some issues have themes, to which half of the pages are dedicated, with the other half remaining open to good writing on any subject. Positive feedback on the themed sections is one of the factors that led Harrison to conclude the reputation of Natural Bridge is growing. He also noted the increased prominence of the writers published in the journal, renewed subscriptions and the increasing quality of submissions.


One issue of Natural Bridge is certain to provide a wide variety of great writing; look for the next one sometime this spring.


A short trip into Illinois leads us to Carbondale, home to Crab Orchard Review (www.siu.edu/~crborchd), another new journal that’s making a big impact. First published in 1995, Crab Orchard is edited by Joseph, along with Jon Tribble and Carolyn Alessio at Southern Illinois University. The journal was founded by the three editors and Richard Peterson, who has since retired.


Crab Orchard publishes poetry, fiction, book reviews and literary nonfiction. Joseph said the editors aim to produce “a magazine that readers enjoy and writers admire.” Undergraduate and graduate interns assist in reading the many submissions the journal receives, but according to the journal’s Web site, no submission is rejected until one of the main editors has read it.


One of the two issues Crab Orchard publishes yearly has a broad theme, such as food or music. The most recent issue, with the theme “Documenting a Decade: 1995-2005,” came out in September 2005, and the newest issue comes out
this month.


Any of these journals can be ordered through their Web sites, or you can look for them at local bookstores such as Left Bank Books.


Journals are a one-of-a-kind reading opportunity. “Ultimately,” as Harrison noted, “any literary magazine is a special thing; nearly nowhere else do we have the opportunity to read poems, short stories, essays and translations under one cover.”

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