Interview Series: James Lewis Huss
In this weeks author interview series, we would like to introduce you to the very talented writer, James Lewis Huss, a teacher in English Literature and language in Taiwan with a BA and MA in English. James has already two novels under his belt, a YA novel called “Book of Pilgrimage” and a satirical epic “Out of the Water”. He is a prolific writer of Poetry, with many of his works published in American literary journals and magazines and a serial traveler and martial arts practitioner. James is the winner of the A Writers Business Poetry Competition with his powerful poem “Langston Hughes and White Man’s Blues”, which is featured below. Read the full interview to learn more about this very interesting and talented writer and his writing practise.
Langston Hughes and White Man’s Blues
How would Langston sing the Blues
If he were in a white man’s shoes?
Would he scream, “Don’t tread on me!”
While taking others’ liberty?
Would he cry oppression when
His symbols of oppression end?
Would he say your gods were fake
Before he bowed his head to pray?
How would Langston sing the Blues
If he were in a white man’s shoes?
Could he tap out beat by beat
The beatings that avoid his streets?
Could he really syncopate
Without experience of hate?
Could he still make rhythm work
Not knowing how it feels to hurt?
How would Langston sing the Blues I
f he were in a white man’s shoes?
Would he claim there’s honor in
The treasons of his Southern kin?
Would he keep that lie alive
That war was fought for states and rights?
Would he wash from history
The blood of chattel slavery?
Nah, Langston wouldn’t sing the Blues
If he were in a white man’s shoes.
James, tell Us A little about you poem “Langston Hughes and White Man’s Blues.
I was experimenting with blues poetry, and naturally I looked to Langston Hughes as an inspiration. He is my favorite American poet, and I have taught him in American Literature, so I am quite familiar with his work and his life. But I could not rightly mimic his style or content as I had done with other writers. After all, I am a white man who grew up in South Carolina—I have no real understanding of the struggles of his life. And that was how "Langston Hughes and White Man's Blues" was born. I decided to write a poem from my point of view, both as a homage to Hughes, but also as a realistic statement about his life and my white privilege and the things that inspire a writer. With this approach, I was also able to make statements about racism, and though I believe this aspect of the poem is what connects with readers the most, it was really just my way to write in the style of Langston Hughes and pay tribute to this great poet without showing disrespect to him or his legacy.
Where do you live and how does it influence your writing?
I currently live in Taiwan, but I’ve also lived and worked in America, China, and Bolivia. Working abroad has afforded me opportunities to travel that I would not have living in America. And working as a teacher allows me ample time to do this traveling. Mark Twain famously quipped, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness,” and though I have always been somewhat open-minded, travel has definitely broadened my view of the world and its people. Like literature, travel has taught me about life—real life. But unlike the stories and novels I read since I was a kid, travel has provided me with direct, firsthand experiences, experiences like standing atop Machu Picchu and gazing upon an entire city carved out of stone, staring down the precipitous slopes of a sleeping volcano at statues erected to the gods of Rapa Nui, or wandering expansive temple sites constructed in the jungles of Siem Reap, all the while wondering what life was like for those ancient people. And in between the adventures are the interactions with modern people of different languages, experiences, knowledge, hopes, and dreams. These interactions, above all, have taught me empathy, and empathy is the key to good writing. Empathy gives us the ability to see through the eyes of others, express ourselves as they might if they had the ability to write, and truly connect with the unconscious mind of the reader.
What inspires you to write?
My inspirations come from a multitude of sources, but in every one of these sources is something that sparks an emotion or an unconscious drive. I’ve written sonnets about people that I’ve loved, poems about my pets, and verses decrying bigotry and hatred. All of these topics induce an emotional response in me, a response that I hope to convey to my readers. And poetry should be about emotion. Poetry, real poetry, emerges from the unconscious mind, where our emotions reside though they defy our descriptions and interpretations. My topics are diverse, but love is probably the most common emotion that I write about, because everyone experiences love. And I’ve been lucky enough in my life to experience love many times and in great amounts, so it’s easy for me to write about.
I’ve also written hundreds of pages about Moses, satirically of course. But religion was a big part of my childhood, and those stories still resonate in my brain. Though I no longer adhere to any religion, I’m still a little obsessed with it. I often wonder what motivates people to believe. And I’m fascinated by Julian Jaynes’s theory of the bicameral mind, which explains why ancient people developed these notions of gods and goddesses. Moses, in all his violence and devotion, is a great inspiration to me, not only because of my interest in his bicameral mind, but also because the stories of the Old Testament are incredible tales of war and love and sacrifice and conquest—the best inspiration one could find for an epic.
When did you first start writing and what was it about?
I suppose my obsession with writing began in college—I was an English major, so of course I had to write often. But I was also a year ahead of my peers because I had taken AP English in high school, so I ended up writing essays for spending money. I developed an aptitude for writing nonfiction prose, but my topics were banal, uninteresting, English 101 assignments. I had an interest in film in high school, so I started experimenting with screenplays. I wrote five or six in the next few years, but never had any success in that brutal industry. I wouldn’t say that I really started writing until I was 36, when I wrote my first poem. It began as an experiment on my own brain that turned into a preoccupation. I was inspired to write poetry after teaching Romanticism in British Literature classes. I had always been interested in mysticism and philosophy, and after studying and teaching the poems and lives of Blake, Wordsworth, and Coleridge, I decided poetry was the spiritual path, so to speak, I needed to complete my physical path of martial arts. After a few years of experimenting with poetry, I found my voice in prose. But I still write more poetry than anything else. And I still use these verses to vent my emotions and experiment on my mind.
What is your favorite genre and why?
The answer to this question varies, depending on whether I’m writing, reading, or teaching. My favorite genres for reading are almost always related to philosophy, consciousness, or linguistics. I do not actually read for pleasure—my pleasure in reading comes from learning. So I am drawn towards Romantic poetry, Greek philosophy, linguistic theory, and consciousness studies. I read mostly nonfiction in my spare time, though I do read a lot of fiction for my job. My favorite genre to write is the epic. The combination of narrative and poetry is quite appealing to me. And I have great fun constructing battle scenes in blank verse. My favorite genre to teach would have to be Renaissance drama, especially Macbeth. I feel a strong connection to this tragedy and its protagonist, as I have studied and taught that Scottish play for many years. And it’s great theater, no matter what your age or interests—Macbeth kills a lot of people. He is both action hero and evil genius. I also love teaching Marlowe, especially Dr. Faustus, though I don’t often get the chance.
Who inspires you and why?
The greatest inspirations in my life have been my martial arts teachers. Though they instructed me primarily in physical arts, the path they put me on coexists with the path towards enlightenment that led me to poetry and taught me to write. The poet who has inspired me the most would certainly be Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the author of what I consider the greatest and most sophisticated work of English literature, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. I discovered in this narrative an allegory that has never before been deciphered, and I went to graduate school just so I could write my dissertation on the subject. I think Coleridge was a consummate genius, just as he thought Plato was a consummate genius, who happens to be my greatest inspiration in philosophy. One other person who has inspired me is Julian Jaynes, author of the monumental text on the mind, The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind. It has helped me understand a vast number of things, including the statues on Easter Island, the voices and symbols in Ancient Mariner, and the motivation behind Moses and his epic journey.
Do you support yourself through writing financially, or do you have a day job and what is it?
I have made very little money from my writing endeavors. Fortunately, I have a great job through which I can study and teach literature while supporting myself financially. I do hope someday to be able to support myself through writing, but only because I have much to write and too little time to write it. I love my job, I love literature, and I love teaching students to love literature, so even if I were to find financial success through writing, I think I’d still try to teach part time somewhere, perhaps a class in creative writing or literary analysis.
How many hours a day do you spend writing and what helps you to get into the writing mood?
I try to write for 1-2 hours most days. It’s difficult to work full-time, train martial arts, and maintain a writing schedule. I avoid television and frivolous activities during the week so I can accomplish something every day. On the weekends I spend more time writing, several hours a day sometimes, unless I am traveling. But I believe traveling is always useful and contributes to my knowledge, my empathy, and the tools with which I write. My most productive times are during my summer and winter vacations, when I have weeks and months at a time to work without interruption.
And what’s the best moment you’ve had in your writing career so far?
My poems have been accepted for publication many times, my YA novel was published by a small publishing company, and I have won awards for my poetry and folklore research, but the best moment in my writing career was the day I discovered the geographic allegory in Ancient Mariner. I can still remember the exact moment I had the epiphany, and that moment will remain etched in my memory for my entire life. It is my greatest literary accomplishment, and it inspired me to go to graduate school and further my career as a teacher and writer.
Tell us about your book. How long did it take to write? What inspired you to write it?
I have written two books: a YA novel, Book of Pilgrimage, and a satirical epic, Out of the Water. I wrote Out of the Water first—it was largely inspired by Julian Jaynes and his theory of consciousness. I had read Jaynes’s book and was studying the Old Testament (he alludes to it often as evidence for his theory). I was also teaching the Aeneid to my AP English Literature class. I realized that Moses was actually an epic hero. His story contains nearly all of the epic conventions—intervention of the gods, invocation of the muse, epic battles, vast setting, etc. He wanders around the Middle East searching for his promised land in Canaan just as Aeneis scours the Mediterranean to find his promised land in Italy. The only thing missing was the elevated language, so I rewrote the story of Moses in blank verse, changing only the nature of the character’s interaction with his god, a voice in his head rather than a literal deity. I published Part I a few years ago and will publish Part II soon. Book of Pilgrimage was a project to create a text that was more marketable and a book that would appeal to the kinds of students I was teaching. I wanted it to be fun and interesting, but also academic, so I set up a scenario in a future where writing and literature are very important. It is also an allegory of consciousness, as my studies of the mind have permeated my every piece of writing. But understanding the allegory is not necessary to appreciating or enjoying the adventure.
What are you working on next?
At the moment I am completing Out of the Water, Part II, and working towards establishing more of a presence as a writer, which means posting my poetry and essays on sites like Medium and Instagram. After Out of the Water, I have two projects which are already in the works—Book of Pilgrimage II, Way of the Warrior, and Out of the Water Part III, which focuses on Joshua and his leadership of the tribe after Moses dies. Joshua’s story will be quite different from Moses’. While Moses represents the bicameral mind, Joshua is the emergence of consciousness, ego, and personal identity. My goal with Part III is to write another interesting and readable epic while challenging the reader’s mind (without his conscious knowledge, of course). I have three more books in the Book of Pilgrimage series which are already planned and outlined, and I am working on a collaboration with my partner for a series of English YA novels with Chinese protagonists for use in teaching English as a foreign language in China and Taiwan.
Where would you like to see yourself in three years time?
The most important thing for me in the next three years is to know that I have learned as a writer, grown as a person, and gained more rewarding life experiences. I hope to continue the productivity in writing that I have experienced lately. I also hope to gain more exposure to my poetry and prose, whether this exposure proves lucrative or not. Of course, I would love to be able to support myself through writing alone, but I would be happy to teach literature and writing until I retire. And I want to complete the projects that I’m currently working on, and more.
Can you give any advice for an aspiring writing?
My advice to writers of prose is to write poetry—you will find your true author’s voice. My advice to poets is to write in traditional forms, even if you prefer free verse. Poetic devices are important, and they stimulate the brain in ways normal language does not, as my graduate poetry professor, Dr. Julie Kane, discusses in her essay, “Poetry as Right-hemispheric Language.” I recommend this text, as well as The Origin of Consciousness and other studies of consciousness and the brain to all poets and writers, for poetry and prose are merely manifestations of the mysterious machinations of the unconscious mind, and to understand poetry is to understand the mind.