Robert Berold was born in Johannesburg in 1948, the oldest of three brothers. He studied chemical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand and economics and English literature at Cambridge University. For the last 30 years he has lived in the Eastern Cape, on a farm near the university city of Grahamstown. He makes his living as a freelance editor of technical and environmental books and as a teacher of writing.
Berold’s four books of poems The Door to the River (1984), The Fires of the Dead (1989), Rain Across a Paper Field (1999), and All the Days (2008) are unpretentious, mindful and curious. They include portraits of people, local narratives, contemporary oddities, and vivid nature poems, particularly of the Eastern Cape. His poems somehow manage to transmute the semi-chaos of contemporary South Africa into a dimension of stillness and lucidity. In their sculptural form, imagistic clarity and quiet vitality, they are often reminiscent of classical Chinese poetry.
Berold has also written two books of non-fiction: Drive Out Hunger (Jacana, 2003), a biography written in collaboration with its subject, the visionary Lesotho agriculturalist JJ Machobane; and Meanwhile Don’t Push and Squeeze (Jacana, 2007), a genre-breaking travelogue full of wry observations of a year spent teaching English in China.
Berold’s influence on the South African poetry landscape has been substantial. He edited the journal New Coin from 1989 to 1999, actively creating an arena where a number of significant South African writers’ voices emerged and found their register. He anthologised the best work of this period in It All Begins: Poems from Postliberation South Africa.
His involvement in encouraging and editing the poetry of others has been generous, attentive and critical. He is known for questioning the superfluous, the indulgent, and the off-key, while respecting each poem’s unique expression. Collections that have benefited from his attention include those by Tatamkhulu Afrika, Nadine Botha, Angifi Dladla, Megan Hall, Mzi Mahola, Mzwandile Matiwana, Joan Metelerkamp, Seitlhamo Motsapi, Khulile Nxumalo, Mxolisi Nyezwa, Lesego Rampolokeng, Ari Sitas and Phillip Zhuwao. Some of these poets have been published by Berold’s own small press, Deep South.
He says the demands that poetry makes of the writer are as much about integrity as skill: “Being a poet is only partly to do with language. The rest is about facing yourself, listening to yourself. When I’m not honest with myself, my poetry is weakened and no amount of skill can rescue it. More and more, I believe the only way to continue as a writer is to go with risky creative choices in your life as much as in your writing.”
Some of his brave poetic risks explore shame, such as ‘Letter to Mary’, or aspects of a racist upbringing, such as ‘Visit to my mother’ – the reader with any comparable experience will surely wince in recognition. ‘To my room’, on the other hand, invites the reader to intimately observe the narrator talking to his walls. Berold’s poetry often creates the sense of having overheard a confidence, or having stumbled upon a photo album in which one glimpses the members of one’s own tribe struggling to bring to light their more frightening shadows.
The Door to the River, Bateleur, Cape Town, 1984
The Fires of the Dead, Carrefour, Cape Town, 1989
Rain Across a Paper Field, Gecko Poetry, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 1999
All the Days, Deep South, Grahamstown, 2008
Drive Out Hunger: the Story of JJ Machobane of Lesotho, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2003
Meanwhile Don't Push and Squeeze: a Year of Life in China, Jacana, Johannesburg, 2007
It All Begins: Poems from Post-Liberation South Africa, Gecko Poetry, University of Natal Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2002
South African Poets on Poetry: Interview from New Coin 1992-2001, UKZN Press, Pietermaritzburg, 2003
Kobus Moolman reviews of All the Days
Gary Cummiskey reviews All the Days in The Weekender
Desiree Lewis reviews It All Begins in Chimurenga
Suzy Bell reviews Meanwhile Don't Push and Squeeze in Dark Lunch Media
Excerpt from Meanwhile Don't Push and Squeeze
Robert Berold’s essay in Chimurenga on South African poetry
Robert Berold’s account of teaching in Soweto in 1976
Robert Berold’s poetry online at BOOK SA