Aerial Publishing: Collective and Community Publishing in Grahamstown, South Africa

-Collated by Claire Trévien


After stumbling on a copy of Anton Krueger’s Everyday Anomalies in Cape Town, I assumed its publisher, Aerial Publishing, followed a traditional model. Instead, it emerged that Aerial Publishing is a collective based around a writing course that’s been running in Grahamstown (in the Eastern Cape) for the last twenty years, founded by Robert Berold and Colleen Higgs. I talked to committee members Anton Krueger and Marike Beyers to find out more:

So how does it all work?

“Aerial has a writing course component to it”, Marike Beyers explains, “it started out as a writing course, run by the ISEA (Institute for the Study of English in Africa). Anyone can join – it is offered annually. There is one writing session per week during term time. There are students who join, but also residents of Grahamstown and Joza (the township). There is a cost and some bursaries available. As I remember, it runs for 16 sessions, during university term time. At the end of the year the students/participants appoint an editorial board among themselves and put together an anthology of writing by themselves during the year. It is published annually as a journal – it contains writing in any genre the participants choose. Some years they produced 2 separate anthologies [single-authored collections -Ed] – one for poetry and one for prose.”

before it can appreciate an image,
the crowd glances instinctively down
for the sign(ature) signalling whether
it should be impressed or not….

from Anton Krueger’s ‘6 notes on madrid’ in Everyday Anomalies

Aerial Publishing is a publishing venture, as well as a writing course, but the two are inextricably linked. Currently, you must have taken the course to be able to submit your writing.


What is unique about Aerial Publishing’s process, is that, as Krueger puts it, “Once you’ve been published you’re on the committee so you help to raise funds, edit and so forth. Any money you make goes into the next book. So it runs itself in that way.”

Becoming part of the committee can involve all sorts of aspects of the publishing process. Beyers explains for instance being part of the 2012/13 selection team, which entailed writing rejection letters.  She adds “We do write proper rejection letters, not just a ‘sorry your manuscript is not what we were looking for’ letter, but giving some constructive feedback – a reader’s report.” She also had the opportunity to co-edit a manuscript with Robert Berold, where she “learnt the how-to-get-it-to-publication process.”

While the concept of Aerial Publishing might sound idyllic, Beyers is keen to stress that it “is starting to sprawl, and difficult to maintain in that all members involved have other ‘day jobs’ and are doing this as volunteer work. We don’t live in the same town anymore […] It is very difficult to get 12-15 people together for a meeting.” They are currently testing out a new model, where a core committee run the venture, “opting help from other members as needed.”

How does Aerial Publishing fit into Grahamstown’s poetry ecosystem?

Beyers believes that Aerial Publishing “gives people still nervous of their writing a safe space to explore writing techniques and a space to overcome anxieties about writing. A starting out space. But many people have done the course several times – it gives them a community to share their writing even if they don’t want to write ‘publicly’. A deadline, a few readers. To me, new in town when I did the course, it also gave a sense of community. And remaining involved in the publishing part of it gives me a similar sense of community – I can learn via this (I’ve learnt editing and manuscript developing from Robert in the process). The facilitators are mostly people who’ve done the course themselves at one stage.”

addicted to da ngu principl e
i trans4m maself in2 a
principal poetical
creep crawl raw roar
under dark tunnels
speak wit da darkness
no recess
for happiness is a luxury not afforded
by the powerless

from Sonwabo Meyi’s Rage against the beast

Key to the course, is that it is not university-run, making it a bridging space. “It is open to anyone from the community, students, working people, people living in town and in the township”, Beyers says, “It is not an academic forum. Although it is run by the ISEA, writers can write in any language. (as long as there is someone else in the course to share it with).”

After twenty years, it’s hard to tell if Aerial Publishing slots naturally into Grahamstown’s thriving poetry scene, or whether it is in part responsible for said thriving scene, whose main hubs are NELM (National English Literary Museum) and the ISEA.

Krueger told me that “There are a lot of poets for a small town. It’s quite lively. There are regular injections of poetry activity here, from writers in residence at the MACW [MA in Creative Writing], to being on the circuit for launches from visiting writers – just recently we had Bongani Madondo who launched Sigh, the Beloved Country, and so on”.

Harry Owen’s Reddits Poetry open mic event on the last Friday of each month frequently comes up in conversation. Beyers describes it as a “public poetry space” where “people can read their poetry – whatever context they wrote it in, and poems by any poet they’ve come across”.

Beyers also tells me about a group called “‘The Cycle of Knowledge’ which brings together students from the English Department with a writing group in the township – and they are very much focused on writing and performing. They do performances and public readings and have been involved in a documentary filming project of what they do. However, Aerial is more concerned with writing, than with performing.”

What are the biggest challenges facing Aerial?

“Right now it is financial” Beyers tells me, “we are in a conundrum of having now called for and received good submissions but not having the money to publish the books. We cannot fundraise without manuscripts either. So we need the manuscripts as physical proof to prospective funders as real projects – we cannot fundraise first and then call for manuscripts. In our new core committee function, I’m not sure how this works out in terms of who will do what. It feels awkward to conditionally accept manuscripts. But we cannot do get funds in another way.”


“I think that there is also some sense of a problem around efficiency and collective decision-making. Aerial has regarded itself as a collective. But with each new round of publications, more people are added to the collective, which makes communal decision making more cumbersome. People like to have opinions and make statements, but it’s way harder to come up with who will volunteer to do x by date y. Some people end up doing the main work or feel that things don’t happen if we don’t make them happen.

So to become more efficient, we’ve now said we’ll function via a core committee. My personal fear is that the core committee might lead to a smaller group making the selection decisions and as such be accused of promoting a particular aesthetics. At the same time, any publishing collective has a sense of aesthetics – we cannot escape that.

And distribution is a problem. We are small. No one is paid a salary to look out or put things out there. Our local formal bookshop (Van Schaiks) makes huge statements about supporting local literature, but the fact is, they’re a chain bookstore and because as a small publisher we are not on the national database of books, they find it too hard to store us. No pre-existing entry on their computer system.

Bookshops take books on consignment but for very short times – so I’ve paid more (personally) in postage to get Aerial books there than money made from that.”


One of Krueger’s roles on the committee was to help create a website for Aerial Publishing. Until then, the collective’s presence online was minimal. Books can currently only be purchased in South Africa, but as Krueger puts it, ‘the main sales come from launches, like most indie publishers”.

Aerial Publishing might still be finding the best path forward but it seems clear that it’s a force for good in the local poetry community. Let’s hope the committee shake-up helps find ways to a better distribution system, so that more people can discover the startling débuts they publish.

‘You must teach the stuff you love’: in conversation with Robert Berold

-In Conversation with Claire Trévien

South African poet Robert Berold, born 1948, is the author of four books of poems. From 1989 to 1999 he edited the poetry journal New Coin, publishing much of the groundbreaking new poetry being written in that period, much of it collected in the anthology It All Begins. Berold has edited over 50 books by individual South African writers, many of them under his Deep South imprint. He was coordinator of the MA programme in creative writing at Rhodes University in Grahamstown, Eastern Cape, from 2011 to 2015.

When did you begin writing poetry?

I only started writing poems in the 1980s, when I was in my thirties, although I had begun to read very intensively from the age of about 18.  I hated poetry at school, we had a terrible teacher and syllabus. We were taught the usual wrong way, the assumption that every poem has a message or meaning hidden in it, like an algebraic equation you have to solve for x.  In my final year at school though, something happened, an epiphany. I was reading a poem (no doubt looking for the meaning) when suddenly it all came alive. It was being transmitted straight to my ear rather than to my intellect, I could hear the sound of every word. After that I never read poetry in the same way.

Do you remember what the poem was?

Actually there were two poems, Milton’s “Lycidas” and the other was Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality”. I didn’t know what to do with the experience, so I memorized these poems. It was like when you fall in love, the scales fall from your eyes and you see the world afresh. Fortunately, I was about to leave school so my new conversion to poetry could be kept secret. And then I studied science and engineering.

I started reading widely. My next door neighour was Denis Hirson whose parents had a large library so I had access to lots of translated poetry.  It was there that I first read Lorca’s poem on the death of his friend the bullfighter, when he repeats the line ‘At five in the afternoon’.   I couldn’t believe the sharpness of his images. I soon found myself preferring translated poetry to English poetry.

How would you describe your own poetic style?

I suppose I would call it plain-language imagistic-modernist, aspiring to the ‘no ideas but in things’ aesthetic of William Carlos Williams. But perhaps even more to the classical Chinese poetry as translated by US poets such as Kenneth Rexroth and David Hinton. I’m drawn to Chinese poetry because of the way the image is its own metaphor. The images can be listened to purely at a descriptive level, while there are all kinds of undercurrents going on because of how the images associate and speak to one another.

You started editing New Coin in the late 1980s.  What was the effect of apartheid on poetry in South Africa, and how did that change after the first democratic elections in 1994?

Apartheid was a brutal and mad system, it wounded everybody. But that was not necessarily bad for poetry. Poetry tends to thrive in conditions of oppression. If you look at totalitarian regimes in the twentieth century – Soviet Union, Mao’s China, many countries in Eastern Europe and Latin America – when language gets distorted and debased, ordinary people turn to poetry for authentic speech. Many of these regimes monitored and censored poetry very zealously, because they took culture seriously. However the apartheid state was only really interested in those who were actively involved in politics. They hardly ever locked up poets for their poetry – although because a lot of the poets were also activists, many were detained and tortured for their activism. Right through the 1970s and 1980s, this relative indifference allowed space for cultural activity. Poetry in black communities became a powerful way of expressing political anger, even after the big crackdown on black consciousness organisations in 1977.  In the 1980s poetry continued as a cultural weapon in trade unions and the UDF [the United Democratic Front].

In the 1990s, after the release of Mandela, much of the need for rousing political poetry evaporated. The future was unclear and the terrain unknown. Which was not so good for protest poets stuck in a certain groove, but a spur to creativity for those who wanted to dig deeper. A lot of interesting poetry began to sprout. It was an exciting time for me, as I had just started editing New Coin.

How was editing New Coin linked to starting up your poetry press Deep South?

I started Deep South in 1995 with Paul Wessels. It came about because I was outraged that some of the poets I was publishing in New Coin couldn’t get their books published. One poet in particular, whose work I thought was really important, and still do, was Seitlhamo Motsapi.  His was the first Deep South book, titled earthstepper/the ocean is very shallow. It’s one of the important books of the generation of black poets who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s – Nyezwa, Motsapi, Dladla, Rampolokeng, Nxumalo, Zhuwao, Bila and others. Sadly it was Motsapi’s only book, he stopped writing after that.

In an interview with Joan Metelerkamp in 2001, you said that no one in academia has registered the importance of these poets you’ve just mentioned. 15 years later, has the situation changed?

Not much.  Some of them have been recognised via inclusion in anthologies. But hardly anyone other than Kelwyn Sole has written anything which gets to grips with what each of these poets is doing formally and stylistically. As Sole has pointed out, academics are still seeing black South African poets in generic political/ anthropogical terms rather than looking at the poetics involved.

How would you describe the poetry scene today?

Well there are poetry festivals and literature festivals and a lot of online activity, but readership of poetry books remains small. South Africans do not read books in a big way anyway, as various surveys have shown. The books that sell in bookshops are mainly non-fiction – political biographies, sport, wildlife – not much local writing, and far more fiction than poetry.  Sales of poetry are miniscule. Bookshops, especially the chain bookstores, don’t want to stock it. In general poetry is not even in the syllabus of most schools. Poetry seldom gets reviewed in newspapers,not even the Sunday newspapers which have book review sections. It’s hardly even reviewed in poetry journals. So there is not much literary criticism to speak of.  And what there is, is infected by marketing and self-promotion. But there are some good poetry magazines, there are at least ten magazines, most of them online. Of course poetry can never die, and brilliant poets will always emerge from unlikely places.  Good poetry has a way of mysteriously finding its readers.

Right now the ‘spoken word’ scene is important, and is archiving itself obsessively, but with notable exceptions it has a quite limited and superficial aesthetic. It makes the noises of politics, especially identity politics, but is not political in any deeper sense. Our writing students have been astonished by the human/spiritual energy of the black consciousness poets of the 1970s and 80s.

And Grahamstown’s poetry scene?

Grahamstown has always been a cultural centre, it’s a small university town. We have the National Arts Festival here, which has been going for 40 years, it’s like an Edinburgh Festival, lots of plays, film, music –  the biggest festival in the southern hemisphere. It was here that Guy Butler started New Coin, and articulated the need for a South African poetry that does not look to Europe for its sense of itself. Harry Owen runs a very popular and well-attended monthly open mic gathering called Reddits Poetry.  There is a poetry club in Joza township, which has linked up with the Rhodes English Department. During the Festival our MA in Creative Writing course runs a daily reading programme with teachers, students, and visiting poets. Also in Grahamstown is the National English Literary Museum [NELM] another of Butler’s inventions, which hosts book launches and literary events. NELM is a national archive, they have just about every book and literary magazine ever published in Southern Africa. It’s all here in this little town, which is still full of colonial remnants, including a vast economic abyss between its black and white population.

I take it that Aerial Publishing is part of the local poetry scene?

Yes, Aerial originated from an extramural creative writing course we started 15 years ago, open to anyone in town, and still going.  Although the course publishes an annual magazine titled Aerial, many of the writers also had manuscripts of their own. So in 2004 a group of us who taught the course started a publishing collective. We’ve now brought out about 15 books. The idea is that as you publish, you join the collective and make some contribution via editing or management or marketing. Needless to say it hasn’t quite worked out that way.

How do you make Deep South work financially?

I don’t make any money from Deep South, but I do try to cover running costs.  I do this mainly by fundraising for printing costs, mostly via the National Arts Council [NAC] which is the biggest source of arts funding in South Africa. I have a distributor [UKZN Press] who handle sales to bookshops and libraries. Sales at book launches and festivals are slightly better.  And as you know, the best sales come from poets who discreetly or indiscreetly promote their own books.

You were the first director of Rhodes University’s MA in Creative Writing, which started in 2011.  What are the challenges of teaching writing?

One of them is a disconnect between reading and writing which never used to be the case when I was a young writer. So we make a big effort to reconnect our students with creative reading. We give them a 200 book reading list, from which they have to read about 10 books, it’s a diverse list of many genres and voices. We have made sure that every book on the list is in the Rhodes library.

The other thing we do is call on practicing writers to teach. We have to train them to teach sometimes, as many of them haven’t done anything like this before. The diversity of our writer-teachers covers a wide range of styles and genres, so we are always able to find supervisors for our students, no matter what their stylistic preferences. We have some brilliant teachers.

Teaching creative writing is good for someone like me. You are not confined to a syllabus, you can teach the stuff you love. In fact, you must teach the stuff you love.  Which may change from year to year – you can only transmit enthusiasm if you teach what you are enthusiastic about at that moment.

It did affect my own writing though.  I haven’t written anything substantial in the past six years of teaching creative writing. All my time and energy went into keeping up with the admin of the course, and all my creative energy into the imaginative worlds of my students. I couldn’t have continued like that indefinitely. But I knew I was going to retire, so I just decided to put everything into it.  It’s been worthwhile.

“the understory of the literary ecosystem”: in conversation with Douglas Reid Skinner and Patricia Schonstein

-Interviewed by Claire Trévien


Douglas Reid Skinner and Patricia Schonstein are the editors of new South African quarterly Stanzas.

Claire Trévien: Tell me about the origin of Stanzas, what made you decide to start it? And once you had the idea, how did you make it become reality?

Douglas Skinner: Prior to Stanzas, a similar, small poetry magazine called Carapace was published in Cape Town by the writer, Gus Ferguson. He retired and, last year, decided that, after 104 issues, it was time to stop publishing. This left a gap in our literary world. There are very few outlets for writers in South Africa. It seemed obvious to us that some sort of magazine was required to plug the gap.

Patricia Schonstein: Both of us had experience in publishing poetry and, after a fair bit of to-ing and fro-ing in London and Cape Town, we leaped in at the deep end. We’ve been joined by the graphic artist, Gaelen Pinnock, who takes care of design and layout. Stanzas is self-funding and relies on the donation of their time by the editors.


CT: How do you feel poetry magazines fit into the larger literary ecosystem – is this something you think about when you edit issues?

Patricia: Small poetry magazines and journals are the understory of the literary ecosystem and play a vital role in keeping people writing. Stanzas itself is the understory of our other poetry projects. These are the Africa! anthologies of Africa Sun Press, of which there are already three fat volumes, and the McGregor Poetry Festival Anthology, which comes out once a year to coincide with the Festival. We work closely with the Festival, and also with Off the Wall, a weekly live-poetry event in Cape Town. We are now venturing into publishing slim collections and have one in our stable already.

Douglas: Stanzas showcases previously unpublished work, whereas the anthologies have no such restriction. The magazine has included poets from Zimbabwe and Kenya, and we hope to cast our net ever wider as time passes.


CT: The magazine is very beautifully designed – how important are its aesthetics do you think?

Patricia: A consideration of aesthetics is integral. We decided on an elegant publication, with generous space and appealing covers.  Each issue features an established or emerging artist’s work and we like this blend of art and poetry. We feature reviews as well, and translations so as to make a broad aesthetic of expression.

CT: You live on opposite sides of the world, how do you share out editorial duties? I’m imagining a lot of Skype calls!

Douglas: Not that many Skype calls, but lots of emails. By and large, I assess the material coming in, and edited our first issues. Patricia handles the actual publication and is more focused on the anthologies. Both of us get involved in proofing and in writing the editorial. As the magazine develops, we hope to add ‘contributing editors’ to the masthead.

Patricia: We work very well together, with the same deep appreciation and respect for poetry, and are happy to be contributing towards its growth, particularly in Africa.



CT: What are some of your favourite presses and publications, in South Africa and elsewhere?

Douglas: In South Africa, so many presses have come and gone… Ravan, Bateleur, Justified, Donker, Carrefour… the list goes on. Publishing poetry is always tricky because of the economics.

Overseas presses…New Directions in America and Angus & Robertson in Australia are emblematic, both crucial to the development of English poetry in those countries. Italy is full of small presses that make beautiful books.

Patricia: South African imprints and magazines… Deep South, Kwela, Modjaji, Incwadi, Litnet, New Coin, New Contrast, Prufrock… again, the list goes on.

CT: Your mission statement says that Stanzas publishes both established and aspirant poets; how easy is it to manage this balance?

Patricia: It’s vitally important that a small magazine reflects as wide a mix of voices as one can persuade to participate. ‘Established’ and ‘aspirant’ as tokens do not describe, necessarily, the quality of the poetry, nor is the process of learning a one-way street (or it shouldn’t be, or be seen to be). We feel that the established should never stop aspiring and the aspirant should never come to feel completely established.

Douglas: The new and the old always have something to tell one another. An unending humbleness before the whole tradition of the art, and the best poems of the English tradition, should always be uppermost in a writer’s mind. The great poems of the language are the established; everyone else is an aspirant.

A Book of Rooms by Kobus Moolman

-Reviewed by Afric McGlinchey

Book of Rooms

The multi-award-winning South African poet Kobus Moolman begins his seventh poetry collection with a quotation by Georges Perec:

Even if I have the help only of yellowing snapshots, a handful of eyewitness accounts and a few paltry documents to prop up my implausible memories, I have no alternative but to conjure up what for too many years I called the irrevocable: the things that were, the things that stopped, the things that were closed off – things that surely were and today are no longer, but things that also were so I may still be.

Moolman, like Perec, is a man haunted by his obsessions. A poet of deep sensitivity and integrity, he uses the extended conceit of rooms brilliantly, layering recurring images, the ‘yellowing snapshots’ of his youth, to summon up the ‘things that surely were’. But this is no ordinary series of reminiscences. These confessional poems are unlike any I’ve read before.

Divided into four sections, Who, What, Why and When, each poem is called after a room: The Room of Maybe, The Room of Green, The Room of Free-Falling, Forever, Not Downhill, The Room of Spillage, etc. The poems, written in the third person, are quite prose-like, most lines stretching right across the page. Although there are capital letters to start sentences, there are no full stops. The effect is of never-ending repetitions, an endlessness. And, although the images are bleak for the most part, and often sordid, they are compelling:

hands stained and sticky with hallucinations, his eyes swimming
straining, straining
like hungry dogs against the hot rope of their longing

‘I don’t believe in symbols,’ Pablo Neruda once said. ‘Simply material things.’ But when those material things accumulate and repeat, they become emotionally charged even when – or especially when – they are not pretty:

There is a smoky
room with a stuffed buffalo head on the wall outside the entrance
to the men’s toilet
stinking of urine and stomach gases, where dirty water lies on
the floor and crude cocks
are scrawled behind the cubicle door   There are blacked-out
windows, a pool table
with heavy legs, and a television set in the corner without sound
playing soft porn
with Swedish subtitles (Ja Ja! Ja!)

Moolman creates setting like a cinematographer or playwright. (He has written several plays.) Many of these poems could be read as stage directions, bringing to mind Shakespeare’s ‘All the world’s a stage’.

But this is not the South Africa of the magnificent Drakensburg mountains, the Pacific Ocean, or national game parks. No wild flora and fauna, almost no beauty, even in the moments of love, or at least, sexual encounters. The world of this speaker is smeared, like a thin greasy film, with the cringing, sorrowful, material experiences of his upbringing, which exert a repelled fascination for the reader. This is a poet who does not shy away from the dark.

‘A Book of Rooms’ is dedicated to his recently deceased father, but his father is cast in a very poor light, without a single redeeming feature. Aside from rampant stinginess, mean-spiritedness and brutality, there are those moments observed by a young boy who imitates him after a spin-the-bottle game:

to force his tongue
inside  You hurting me
just like he had seen his father do with Auntie Audrey (who was not really his auntie
just a good friend of his mother’s)

But if his father doesn’t come out of this collection at all well, neither does the speaker. One shameful event after another is described in forensic (if oblique) detail, suggesting a self-loathing, particularly in relation to the way he treated his younger brother. And yet, he retains our sympathy, especially in matters of love.

His first love is for his devoted mother. Then there is his first crush, who still has a hold on him. The vivid experience of his only night out with her exerts a preposterous power even decades later. When an older boy, a university student, steals her from him, we realize what the speaker is also up against:

And he (the boy with a hole in his heart, at the heart of
this story) feels everything
crumble and slide away beneath his small feet in their differently-
sized orthopaedic boots
and he leaves without saying anything to the girl

Although references to a congenital disability are oblique and fleeting, they are also subliminally pervasive.

Which is not to say the story is harrowing throughout. Some poems describe seduction. Even marriage:

There is
a tall blue sky without any railings  He remembers  He remembers
the woman saying
Marry me  With this body I thee worship

While there isn’t enough lyricism for my taste (that ‘tall blue sky without any railings’ is all the more striking for being a rare example), there is a rhythmic power to the repetitions. And there is a dark humour too, and a certain recognition:

There is the same
old pine desk with four drawers filled with unopened NBS bank
statements and old
school exercise books he had bought because the girl with the
red hair, who had a
boyfriend waiting for her at home, had told him that all real
writers keep notebooks
for their profound thoughts and ideas   But since he had never
had any profound thoughts
and ideas (or the discipline to be still and listen for them) the
books are still sealed
in their brown paper wrapping

Moolman is one of the rawest and most honest poets I have ever come across – not even Sharon Olds comes close. Building on the insights of his last collection, Left Over, where Kobus Moolman found a dramatic way to write about his physicality, this haunting collection brings home, forcibly, the sense that, as well as the room of our body, we live in the rooms of our memories,  and it is from these rooms that we experience our life.