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.