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Cover Reveal: Red Earth by Esther Vincent Xueming

We’d like to introduce you to the lovely and whimsical cover of Esther Vincent Xueming’s debut poetry collection, Red Earth. The artwork utilized in the cover was created by Singapore artist Shu Yin. To give readers a sense of how the cover art came to be, and a peek into the artistic viewpoints of Esther and Shuyin, we interviewed them both earlier this month. Scroll down to immerse yourself in Red Earth‘s dreamy book cover and author and artist interviews!

An Interview with Esther Vincent Xueming

Christina Butcher (Publisher): Esther, will you talk about how the artwork for Red Earth intersects with your poetry? 

Esther Vincent Xueming (EVX): The cover art for Red Earth masterfully captures the duality of my poems, and the search for harmony and balance—of wakefulness and dreams, of memory and imagination, of darkness and light, of the conscious and subconscious. The circle motif in the centre of the cover represents night and day, moon and earth, air and water. I wonder if this was intentional on the part of the artist, Shu Yin, but I notice that most of the elements on the cover are predominantly feminine! The moon and earth are commonly associated with the female body, the water with emotions and the sacral chakra, and night with yin energies. The whale for me is a keeper of time, and the moth a signifier of transcendence.

Coincidentally (Shu Yin did not know this), I am a sun in Cancer, ruled by the moon, and a moon in Taurus, grounded by the earth, and so the cover image (half moon, half earth) is particularly resonant for me. I also love how Shu Yin draws our attention to the moon and earth, which are recurring symbols in my poems of light, desire and grounded-ness. My poems deal with themes of the earth, woman, body and memory, among others, and I think Shu Yin manages to encapsulate the feminine energy of my poems on her cover art in a subtle, evocative way.

CB: What drew you to Shu Yin as an artist?

EVX: I first found out about Shu Yin through The Tiger Moth Review, the eco journal that I edit. She sent in some work, Tribute to Inuka and Singapore Mermaids which are featured in Issue 2, and since then, I have fallen in love with the way she works with watercolors. When Blue Cactus Press picked up my work for publication, I knew immediately I wanted Shu Yin to design my cover art.

Her style is gentle and thoughtful, and there is a softness and optimism that appeals to me. I’m someone who tends to see the positive, hopeful side of things and who remains open and curious to nature, and so maybe that’s why I’m drawn to her work, which I think does all of that. As a woman artist and art therapist who works with nature and the community, I appreciate her sensitivity and careful attention to the work that she does.

At the same time, Shu Yin is a versatile artist as her portfolio will show. What I like about her art is her feminine style and how she as a person is very much in tune with female, lunar and earth energies, as her cover art of Red Earth will reveal.

CB: What do you hope readers take away from this book?

EVX: I hope that readers will take away exactly what they need to and what the book is able to offer them, and that might mean different things for different readers, or the same reader reading it at different points in their life.

I know that doesn’t seem to answer the question, but just as Red Earth was a searching and journeying for me, a tunnelling deep into my memories, subconscious, dreams and imaginings, entering into different states of consciousness, traversing geographies and moving in time and place in order to make sense of home and the self on earth, I hope Red Earth does something of the sort for the reader—makes them contemplate and re-evaluate their place on earth.

Red Earth is also a dedication to the earth, my first mother, and so I’m hoping readers will learn to see the earth anew through my poems, and be inspired to find their own unique ways of singing to the earth in gratitude, humility and love.

CB: What has been the most surprising aspect of this design and editorial process for you?

EVX: I think I’ve just been so pleasantly surprised at the congeniality with which we have all been able to work together. The publisher Christina of Blue Cactus Press has been every writer’s dream to work with, and I love her consultative and collaborative approach to the design and editorial process. I am so thankful for the way she has created an environment of openness, respect and appreciation.

Early on, I also specified to Christina that as far as possible, I wanted to work with women on the team, to grow and support women in the traditionally male-dominated sphere of publishing. I’m grateful to be able to be a part of such a publishing model, and I believe that this environment—one of support, solidarity and kinship—is what will make Red Earth, my debut, even more special upon its release.


An Interview with Shu Yin

CB: How did you come up with the concept for the cover art of Red Earth? Can you talk a bit about the creative  process?

SY: The process was pretty organic. When the publisher and writer first engaged me, they provided examples of my artwork which they liked as reference for the preferred style of the cover art. I read the poems in the book, and drew sketches of images that came to mind. Some strong imagery related to individual poems surfaced, and I tried piecing some of the elements together into a single composition. I came up with a few concepts, then sought feedback from both the publisher Christina as well as the writer Esther. In the end, the sensual visuals of the red earth from Esther’s poem were prominent for me. Contrasting with the fiery red earth, was the subdued moon which represented the ‘yin’ and subconscious, themes that consistently recurred throughout the book.

CB: As an artist whose medium is primarily drawing/painting, do you think there are parallels between creating art on the easel and poems on the page?

SY: Yes, definitely. Both the artist and poet are channeling the drive to create, using their specific media – the paint and words respectively. We are all expressing and bringing to life our personal inspiration and ideas, which are a part of us but also more than us, the collective subconscious. The creative process is a state of flow through which the subconscious is brought to the surface and externalized. The media we are using are tools that come with their own characteristics and limitations. I feel there is an element of surrendering to the creative process and what it needs to be brought to life. We are also presenting a part of ourselves, which can be very personal, to the viewer to ‘consume’, and once it’s out there, how it is perceived by the viewer is beyond our control.

CB: Can you talk a little bit about making artwork for a book cover, specifically? Did  it change how you approached the artmaking journey?

SY: I had admired Esther’s work with the The Tiger Moth Review, a pioneer in Singapore curating literary and visual art works on nature. When she approached me, I was honored and eager to create the cover for her debut book of poetry. It is my first time creating artwork to be published on a book cover and also my first time formally collaborating with Christina and Esther (apart from The Tiger Moth Reivew). It certainly helped that the poems were enjoyable to read and I could resonate with them. For the artwork, it was important for me that all partners were satisfied with it. I valued their feedback and it was also affirming that my collaborators were open minded to my suggestions and trusted my artistic vision. Art creation can be heavily influenced by one’s collaborators. It was heartening that we have similar values and ideals, and they were supportive of the kind of art I create.

CB: What drives you to create? What pushes you to try new techniques or start working on a new piece of art?

SY: Creating is an integral part of my life whether it’s for commissions or personal expression. It’s an embodied thing, not just cerebral, and I don’t have an external material ‘why’ as a reason for creating or trying new techniques apart from it being an intrinsic need. It keeps me happy and I feel it’s a natural part of being alive. As long as I’m able, I would be curious and want to create or try new ways of creating. Creating puts one in a flow state where we’re right here and now in the present moment, instead of worrying about the past or future. It also produces happy chemicals in the brain like dopamine, and lowers the stress hormone cortisol. Creating helps me process thoughts and emotions about things that happened, and imagine new possibilities. What we can imagine, we can materialize. Furthermore, as my life can be socially isolated, sharing art on social media helps me stay connected with people who view and comment on my art. I feel touched, understood and connected when I hear that others resonate with what I have made. As for what pushes me to try new techniques or start a new piece, I think it depends on what I need at that moment. Sometimes, I need to do the same thing to ground myself, and sometimes, I need to do something different. It’s about staying curious, aware and sensitive to what is needed at that point in time.


Readers based in the U.S. can pre-order Red Earth here. Readers based in Singapore can pre-order Red Earth from Pagesetters in August 2021. Red Earth is a joint publication between Blue Cactus Press and Pagesetters. It is a cross-cultural collaboration in a time of heightened border controls.


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Sad Horror & Blood, Blood Blood

An author interview with Moss Covered Claws author Jonah Barrett

It’s true, we love chatting with Jonah Barrett. There’s something about their cheeky humor and blatant honestly that keeps us leaning in to learn more about their writing, filmmaking, and multiverses of monsters and ghouls. I sat down with Jonah just after Moss Covered Claws, their debut short story collection, hit shelves around the Pacific Northwest last month (don’t worry, they’re in my COVID bubble!). Here’s what Jonah had to say about writing books and making art:

Q: What was one of the most unexpected things you learned about yourself while writing this book? 

Jonah Barrett (JB): The biggest thing I had to learn was that I was good enough to write a collection on my own. I still have imposter syndrome about this. Like holy fuck, Jonah. You have a collection of short stories? And not a small collection either. Jesus on a cracker what have you done? Logically it wasn’t unexpected but emotionally it was still pretty shocking.

Another thing I learned was: I write about blood a lot more than I thought I did. I’m diabetic, and I’ve been pricking my fingers and drawing blood my entire life, so the plasma’s always just sorta been in the background. When I was going through and making content warnings for each story, blood came up the most. I never thought I was so fixated on blood, but apparently it’s my subconscious’ favorite topic.

Q: What advice would you give young writers who are thinking about publishing their first book? 

JB: Independent is the way to go. As cool as it’d be to get picked up by the big five or whatever, small presses are gaining popularity and accessibility everywhere. Just like filmmaking, the tools to create amazing art are now in everyone’s hands. You get more creative freedom and flexibility when it’s just you and a small team of dedicated publishers. Indie publishers are kinda the lifeblood of the literary world right now (there I go with blood again). They’re more interested in works that deviate from the norm and try new and exciting things.

Also, and this is just a personal preference, but don’t work with Amazon. They’re ruining the book world (and the real world to boot), and they can go die in a goddamn fire. Fuck Amazon.

Q: You create so many things – creative writing, movies, newspaper articles – how did you decide what to include in this book and what to nix? 

JB: I think this is why having a great editor on your side can be a big help. Christina Butcher really helped me with slimming these stories down—originally there were going to be thirteen. We got rid of the poetry and experimental pieces pretty fast. She also helped me notice themes that held the whole collection together, stuff that I never really gave any thought to. One of those themes was depression. All my characters seem to have some kind of depression, because spoiler alert: that’s what I have!

Q: Is your creation process for writing a story similar/different to filmmaking? How so? 

JB: The first part of both processes is pretty similar for me to be honest. Both writing a first draft for a story and writing a first draft for a screenplay have the same highs and lows of, well… writing. For screenplays though I maybe only go through one or two revisions before I start heading into the rest of the pre-production stage. With filmmaking it’s like you go through all the trouble of writing and you’re maybe like, 1/5 of the way finished with the project as a whole. For writing, the writing is the finished medium, so that involves much heavier editing and revising. You can focus more heavily on THE CRAFT.

The way I usually start a story is coming up with the creature that I want to feature in it. What does that creature represent? How do people come across it? What’s going through their minds as they encounter it? And then I go from there.

Q: Has being a bookseller changed how you look at/interact with books? 

JB: Books are just objects. Unless they are hand-made or super rare or old, they are always replaceable. When I was just a reader I used to think of books as these sacred things that must be cared for and coddled. But it’s not the books that are sacred; it’s the writing within them. I like books now that have been around the block and have worn covers and smooth edges. Books are wonderful things that can easily be created or destroyed.

From a technical standpoint, it was awesome learning how to make a book as we went along. I could bring things I learned from bookselling to the table, and vice versa. I always hated blurbs and endorsements on books, I just wanted to read the freakin’ synopsis on the back. But you know who the endorsements are really for? Booksellers. We’re trying to find recognizable names that we know our customers love. That blew my mind when I learned that.

Q: There’s a lot of, er…… gore in these stories. They’re kind of serious and dark. Was it hard working on this book during dark and scary pandemic times (when, as some believe, we need all the light we can get)?

JB: I don’t like pretending I’m “light” when I’m so obviously in a dark place. I remember during the first few weeks of quarantine I tried so hard to write a comedic screenplay with that mindset of “we need light,” and it just wasn’t coming out. The meat and potatoes were really in the darker things I started to scribble down, and I think it’s a kind of catharsis really. For a long time our society has taught us to suppress our darkness, to not let ourselves cry when we need to and put a smile on instead. It’s healing for me to read dark stories; it’s like flexing a muscle we haven’t been allowed to use most of our lives. I really think you need both light and dark to find balance.

This might sound weird, but I don’t consider Moss Covered Claws to be a “grim” collection. Sure, I turned the dark elements up pretty high in some cases, but the stories don’t revel in the muck, so to speak. You know what I mean, right? Sometimes I read horror stories and it’s so obvious the author is writing these horrific scenes in delight. I didn’t necessarily enjoy writing the fucked up things in my stories. (Two exceptions I can think of are the nazi-punching scene, and anything the demon in “Stripes”—her name is Jerusha btw—says or does.) I don’t actually like sick, twisted things. Well I mean I do but I also don’t. I think the true horror for these types of scenes is how sad or tragic they are. There we go, that’s the genre I write in. “Sad horror.”

Q: How did it feel to have your first book drop into the hands of almost everyone you know (and folx you don’t know, too!)?

JB: I was pretty nervous, actually. I felt like there are parts of myself that I’ve kept hidden from people that rear their ugly heads in this collection. I was scared to death at what my mom would think. I was scared at all the assumptions people might make about me. I was scared the violent elements would overshadow the emotional aspects of love and melancholy, the parts I really cared about most when writing these stories.

Q: Do you have a favorite story from the collection, or a least favorite story? What are they???

JB: Right now I am really, really proud of “Warmonger,” which is kind of a shame because it has the least amount of monsters. I think it captures my generation’s frustration and is about something bigger than my usual themes of “Jonah is sad.” I’m trying to dip my toes further into “high fantasy” as well, and I’m exploring this one alternate world in “Warmonger” and “Snow Thing” where I can talk about issues in my own world without getting bogged down in the hyper-details that I’m too dumb to know.

My favorite though is “Boggy.” It’s the most autobiographical of my stories, since I grew up in that very bog. I didn’t have an imaginary friend when I was little, I had an imaginary monster, and Boggy was that monster. If you want to get really dorky, he is a prehistoric throwback-cryptid called the Tanystropheous, and he lives in my bog on a diet of frogs and peat. I literally convinced myself this creature existed when I was little, so it was a joy to bring him back into my life for this story. I also really love Anita, and plan to come back to her at some point in the future.

Least favorite? Probably the first piece, “Acts of Violence.” It’s based off an Alan Watts talk about how we are all the universe since we make up the universe, but I don’t know if I conveyed that in the way I wanted in the story. It also was just awful reliving my Catholic school days on the playground. Not that we beat anyone up for being gay, but there was a lot of homophobia (and bullying) in hopes of covering up our own questioning identities. I just hate revisiting that dark part of my life… so naturally I had to write about it.

As a whole, my favorite thing about the collection is how the stories all take place in the same multiverse. I didn’t plan it like that, but some characters popped up in multiple stories, and I just followed along. So if you step back it’s like this web where everything is connected. That was my favorite part of making this collection, going back in and adding little fun Easter eggs everywhere. Even the stories that take place in my high fantasy world are a part of this web. It’s never outright stated, but in “The Way Things Were” the concept of string theory and multiple timelines and worlds is introduced. Maybe the Dallas you meet in one story isn’t the same version of Dal you meet in the next. It’s wild and messy, and I like it that way.


About the Author

Jonah Barrett is a queer filmmaker, writer, and multimedia artist. Their debut book, Moss Covered Claws, was released in March 2021. They have also been published in the Forest Avenue Press collections Dispatches From Anarres and City of Weird. Jonah has directed and written three feature films, a dozen-ish short films, and four web series—with their film work being presented at the Olympia Film Society, Northwest Film Forum, and Trans Stellar Film Festival. They usually find themself in old haunted buildings or overgrown swamps.

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It’s Your Country, Too

A conversation with authors Yousef Allouzi & Samuel Snoek-Brown about writing, publishing, and co-creating

With the launch of The Bedouin by Yousef Allouzi and There Are No False Alarms by Samuel Snoek-Brown right around the corner, we couldn’t resist the opportunity to give readers a deeper understanding of the how’s and why’s behind the paired chapbooks and their authors. So, we asked Yousef and Sam to chat with us about their writing, the publishing process, and their relationship as writers and co-conspirators. Enjoy, friends!


Yousef Allouzi, “It’s Your Country, Too”

Q: Yousef, your essay centers on heritage and reconnecting with your family, but it also touches on racial profiling and discrimination in the U.S. Will you talk about how those themes intermingle in your writing and personal life?

A: The intermingling of heritage and family with discrimination and racial profiling has always been a part of my life.  From the time I was young, I was very aware that being Arab-American was drenched in stigma, whether it be the “t word” (terrorist) or the general portrayal of Arab-Americans in pop culture and television.  I lived much of my youth ashamed of my heritage. I liken it to the feeling of being poor.  I can remember the first time I visited a kid’s house in a gated community back in Texas.  I felt like I shouldn’t be there. No matter how many showers you take, or how expensive the clothes you are wearing, you don’t feel like you belong. So, naturally, I try and let those feelings seep into my writing. 

Q: What do you hope readers take away from reading your essay?

A: The American story is a story of diversity. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. It’s your country too.  It’s become somewhat of a cliché, but history has a way of repeating itself. Our country has a very fickle relationship with civil rights during conflict, and the fallout of 9/11 was no different. 

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Author Interview: Kellie Richardson

We can’t keep Kellie Richardson’s book cover under wraps any longer! It’s too good to keep to ourselves, and the story behind it – and behind Kellie’s creative work in collage – is worth sharing. So, let us introduce you to The Art of Naming My Pain, a collection of prose, poetry and collage by Kellie Richardson.

The cover of is based on one of Richardson’s collage pieces, “Listen,” created in 2019 with acrylic, tissue paper and found items on canvas.

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Author Interview: Samuel Snoek-Brown

SSB Author Photo

If you’ve been wondered what was rolling around in author Samuel Snoek-Brown’s head as he wrote his new short story collection, There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, today’s the day to find out! We sat down with the Tacoma-based author to chat about how his new collection came to be, the narratives inside, and some of the secrets hidden within its stories. Enjoy!

Q: We heard through the grapevine you like to hide secrets or slip riddles into your stories … is that true?

A: I’m a big fan of literary puzzles and Easter eggs! So yeah, I hide all sorts of nerdy things in my stories. The main thing I hope every reader keeps an eye out for are the hidden connections between my stories, not just in this book but in all the stories I write. (Example: There’s a connection between the story “Jarabe” and my Civil War novel Hagridden, but I’ll let readers find it on their own.) But there are also other little games I play while I’m developing stories, and I don’t know if anyone else will spot them or if they’re just for me, but I like that they’re in there. A lot of my stories come from songs, for example, as did the title of this collection. But I won’t spoil the game of figuring out which songs. And those Easter eggs aren’t as important as the stories themselves, anyway. Continue reading Author Interview: Samuel Snoek-Brown