‘It was a huge learning curve …’
What’s it like being in almost at the birth of a magazine of new writing and the visual arts and seeing it through many years of increasing success? Our recently-retired coordinator Freda Hasler answers our questions designed precisely to explore that subject. You can find a tribute to Freda and her partner Martin in an earlier blog post.
Until your retirement recently, you had been involved with POTB for many years. What made you get involved in the first place?
There’s a very long answer! But the short one is to help my partner Martin, who became seriously ill shortly after becoming POTB’s first voluntary editor (the wonderful NHS cured him!). Even before that, when the magazine was still being run by Aberdeenshire Council, I helped with copy-editing Issue 4.
POTB is a magazine run entirely by volunteers, challenging to achieve at the best of times. What do you think has been the secret of its longevity?
Its unique quality – and wonderful teamwork of course. Utilising the web helped, not just keeping costs down, but aiding communications and raising profile: who would believe the increased number and wide variety of submissions achieved by 2020. But let’s not forget the array of invaluable skills so generously volunteered over the years – and we didn’t break too many arms press-ganging their owners on board!
Latterly, you were the coordinator for the magazine but you must have done many other things over the years to ‘keep the show on the road’, mostly in behind-the-scenes roles. What have been the highlights of your involvement?
Well, I learned a lot about publishing, though it was a huge learning curve. As part of the core team, one steps into roles as and when required. I had a period as Acting Secretary, with the unexpected bonus of forming long-term friendships with several (often first-time published) writers and artists – plus meeting many appreciative contributors at our brilliant launches. I enjoyed the networking (except when folk started to run away from ‘that POTB woman’ whenever I approached!). But my favourite task was working on the magazine layout and design: I’m proud of the look of POTB… I gather there may even be some imitations out there.
And the most challenging aspects?
We often seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis, with team members disappearing (some to far-away shores at short notice); we even had a funding heist! Supporting volunteers is never easy. I guess I won’t miss the increasingly 24/7 nature of the job, and the full calendar: fitting in holidays could be difficult, and necessitated lots of advance POTB prep. The latter did pay off when we got stranded in Japan (due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland!) and would have missed deadlines for the upcoming Launch of POTB 9. Luckily those pre-prepared documents were accessible online, and we were able to send everything – from our hotel bedroom. Phew!
Of all the work that has appeared in the magazine over the years, poetry, prose and art, do any pieces stand out as something you especially remember or feel affection for, and why?
Of course, everything by my partner Martin Walsh is a highlight – even his Doric poem [Martin is from Kent – Ed.]. He has such a following, and it’s a disappointment when his work doesn’t make the cut. (But that does prove the anonymity of the selection process). Having copy-edited many pieces over some fifteen years, several I know almost by heart, and they are very special. Amongst countless superb contributions, I’d have to include anything by Stephen Pacitti, with ‘The Possum Spider’ in my top ten. [You can find this story in Issue 12 of POTB online, starting at p.12– Ed.]
What practical tips would you give to the team now running the magazine?
We tried hard to share out the workload, and put good procedures in place; so the only advice I’d give is to avoid becoming dependant on too few individuals. Otherwise, the team are so talented that I’m pretty sure they don’t need any more tips!
What do you feel, from your experience, will be the most challenging issues for a magazine like POTB in the future?
These never really change. Most small publishers encounter similar challenges year on year (even without COVID), but POTB has the additional problem of finding those vital skilled volunteers; luckily we were assisted by incredible outside support. Also, selling a print magazine is an everlasting problem, so perhaps building a subscription base, even for the online editions, might help.
And finally, what now? You’re not a person to rest on their laurels, even after so many years of helping to make a success of POTB. What further challenges await you?
My ‘retirement’ coincided with the start of COVID, so our planned travels have been curtailed – hopefully to be resumed very soon. Mainly for the pleasure of learning new skills, I attend art courses, some latterly in fascinating places overseas – though right now Zoom doesn’t quite hit the mark. But other demands continue, including those of my Board duties with an Arts organisation, plus lay involvement with various university research projects. These keep the brain cells active. And there’s our beloved garden …