Recently, I got to sit down with Stitched Smile Publication’s resident bard, James Matthew Byers. I met him in 2016 and the one thing that stood out about him is his enthusiasm. I have never met a more enthusiastic person … ever. I thoroughly enjoyed our little conversation. I think you will, too.
AJ: So, tell me a little about James Matthew Byers.
JMB: Sure thing! Perhaps we’ll do this the old fashioned way and start at the beginning. My passion for fantasy, horror, and science fiction began around age three. I saw Star Wars, the Rankin/Bass animated Hobbit, and received a book by Usborne called The World of the Unknown: Monsters. This book is instrumental to who I am today. It introduced a young boy to Frankenstein’s monster, vampires, werewolves, Greek mythology, and most importantly, Beowulf and Grendel.
Through my youth, I drew pictures and crafted stories. I wrote poetry from 6th grade on after being introduced to Robert Frost. I grew to love Shakespeare and Chaucer. Edgar Allan Poe became my greatest influence. I started writing stories in rhyme.
As a husband and father, I have deeper waters, understanding the most important human emotions. I do believe poetry lives in the heart of everyone. Some just are more in tune with it.
I taught middle school English and reading for ten years, gaining insight into the minds of young adults. I’ve got a Master’s in English and reading Education.
I have numerous years of experience in composing poems. My latest work, Beowulf: The Midgard Epic, had just released from Stitched Smile Publications. It’s a rhyming version of Beowulf in iambic tetrameter. I’ve also got a story in the newly released Unleashed: Monsters Vs. Zombies. I’ve won three Prose challenge of the week contests. And I just learned my poem, The Dinner Fly, will be published in Weirdbook Magazine #35.
I try and offer support where I can, for both established and up and coming authors. Who is James Matthew Byers? I’m just a guy trying to connect with people, sharing in this human condition.
AJ: Tell me, how did Poe become one of your greatest influences?
JMB: When I first read The Raven and Annabel Lee, I fell in love with Poe. Middle school was tough for me. I was bullied daily. I escaped in his short stories, The Black Cat, The Pit and the Pendulum, and The Tell-Tale Heart. They helped cement him as an all time favorite. I also love Dr. Seuss, J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Margaret Weis, Ed Greenwood, Rob King, James Lowder, Christie Golden, and Jean Rabe.
AJ: I’m sorry to hear you were bullied as a child. So many kids are and it is sad to see. I’m glad you had something to turn to.
You said you taught middle school English for ten years. What was that like?
JMB: Teaching was one of the greatest adventures of my life. Growing up, whether in public school or college, the teachers were always so influential on me. I wanted to give that same sort of instruction. I wanted to inspire young minds. I got to teach reading. Speaking daily about Tolkien’s works, poets, and other favorites made for a job much enjoyed. The kids could be rowdy at times, but my passion to read passed on to them. My love for writing and art did as well.
AJ: Is there any student that stands out to you now?
JMB: Candice Crutchfield. She’s become a really great poet. Also, Cody Lunsford.
AJ: As a teacher, did you connect with them differently than some of your other students?
JMB: Yes. But I never had favorites. I tried to always make every kid feel equally loved.
AJ: Do any of your former students still keep in touch with you?
JMB: Many do. I have tons as friends on Facebook.
AJ: That is awesome. I taught at a Montessori school for two years back in my early 20s. I have been fortunate to be able to reconnect with a couple of the students from back then.
So, let’s talk about Tolkien for a minute. Clearly, you have a fondness for him. What is it about Tolkien that inspires you?
JMB: Tolkien was my gateway drug. From The Hobbit, I delved into The Lord of the Rings. Then The Silmarillion. Afterward, C. S. Lewis and Narnia. I then got into DragobLance and Forgotten Realms. But Tolkien was first. He introduced me to it all. After seeing Star Wars, I watched the Rankin/Bass Hobbit. It’s one of my earliest influences. And Tolkien was a Beowulf junkie. Definitely one of the many reasons he inspires me!
AJ: So, then you would consider yourself a Beowulf junkie, as well?
JMB: That’s an excellent way of describing me. I’ve read numerous translations. I’ve watched any film or television version of the epic I could find. I’ve searched and viewed as many pieces of Beowulf art that I could find. There are several comic book adaptations. Even DC comics had their take on the hero.
AJ: Wow, so you are somewhat of an aficionado in Beowulf. I’d like to ask you about how you view poetry. You recently gave a speech at Jacksonville State University and you made a statement in that speech that keeps coming to mind: “Poetry is essentially life itself. When you read a poem, you’re connecting to that person’s life experiences.” I am fascinated by this statement. Can you expand on this viewpoint for me?
JMB: Sure thing! I believe poetry reflects the most basic elements of the human condition. I believe poetry is as basic as the air we breath. There are levels and layers to every poem read. The same applies to every poem as it’s written.
I think of poetry like playing a video game. You level up as you go. There are degrees of skills. Anyone can play a video game. Anyone can write a poem. It’s not an exclusive club. That being said, not everyone who plays a game is a gamer, and not everyone who writes a poem is a poet. You have those who play video games professionally. In the same respect, you have people who make a living writing and composing poetry. We all start out playing games. But whether we’re good at it or not determines the longevity of the broader picture.
When you play a game you essentially take on the role of a character. The same goes for reading a poem or story. You take on the emotions, the content, and the experience of where the words take you.
Console, game cartridge is to keyboard, blank page. The experience of game playing takes you out of this world and places you in another, only to plant you back in the original with new knowledge. This is the experience. This is where life comes in. You learn the life of who you become in the game. Once you eject yourself from it, you take the new condition out. It combines with you, bringing a life lesson. Whether it’s robbery, murder, suggestive suppression, heroics, or any other means of style promoted in game play, the same thing happens when you write and read poetry.
The experience is life.
It has its own existence; its own meaning. However, the two worlds unite, creating one condition. I know I’m speaking in circles, but this analogy defines why I believe poetry is essentially life itself. When you play a game, or read a poem, you connect to that person’s life experiences.
AJ: That makes sense. Is it safe to say, the more you write poems, the better you get? Just like with gaming (or really anything you want to do that takes work)?
JMB: Absolutely. Practice makes perfect, especially when you’re a rhyming poet. You have to know the mechanics. You can’t build an automobile if you don’t know how the parts work in relationship together. The same can be said with poetry. You have to know the rules. How to count poetic feet. Iambs, forms of meter. Syllables and down beats. The formats I use tend to rely on old school poetry methods.
Back to the gaming scenario. Anyone can play a game. If you look at free verse, just about anyone can make a poem. And that’s awesome. But just because someone plays a game doesn’t make he or she a gamer. And like I mentioned earlier, just because someone writes a poem, it doesn’t make he or she a poet. I believe you must live the words—Poetry is life. I write poems almost daily. Sometimes numerous poems. I tell 99% of my tales in rhyme. It has been a long and winding process. But as I studied, my skills grew and developed. It has taken half my life to get where I am now. Poetically speaking. Level up!
AJ: When did you start telling your tales in rhyme?
JMB: I began in high school school with an assignment to write my own Canterbury Tale. I love Chaucer. I wanted it to be modern but authentic. I recounted an event in rhyme. The teacher loved it. She already knew I could write poetry. She really began to push me to keep it going. I had shown her my art before, too. She always told me I was special because I could write and illustrate my stories. I’d done so since I was three. That was fall of 1992.
In 1994, I got to my EH 101 class early at UAB. (University of Alabama at Birmingham) I went there before JSU. I was bored and decided to write a rhyming fairy tale. I came up with The Nameless Squire’s Tale. That led to more stories in rhyme, and in 1997, I crafted an entire novel in rhyme.
AJ: And that novel would be?
JMB: It was then called The Legacy of Mythril. I rewrote it in standard prose—a non-rhyming novel with the same story. I’m actually editing it to submit to SSP. I’ve had the characters since I was 15. I’m 42 now.
AJ: With all of this said, I want you to tell me about Beowulf, The Midgard Epic.
But … I want you to do it in prose.
JMB: No problem!
The story takes a different form,
Converging from the simple norm.
Reworked in such a metered beat
As measured out poetic feet-
Iambs of syllables of eight
In structure carrying the weight
Of speed and action in its hold.
I’d like to call that poet’s gold.
As Beowulf is known abroad,
I went a route that some deemed odd-
The Midgard Epic has two tales-
The Wanderer to tip the scales
And end the story in a bang-
I wanted such a place to hang
The unknown tale, connecting them-
As sure as Beowulf can swim,
So, too, now Wiglaf has his place-
A hero to a dying race.
Accessible, my prudent goal-
To make this epic rich and whole-
I chose iambs and deeper still-
Tetrameter completes the bill.
I used translations—many books-
I gave the Anglo-Saxon looks-
And researched much until the day
I conquered Grendel; words would slay
Even dragons as I found
To this story, I was bound.
Like a scop or skald of old,
The story here had to be told.
Across the whale-road to the hall,
As Beowulf adhered the call,
Arriving to beat beast and more-
He conquered Grendel on the shore
And took his mother’s head as well.
It took a dragon’s flaming hell
To send the Geat to his death,
But as he breathed his final breath,
Perhaps there’s more of him, you see …
I leave a clue for you from me …
AJ: Bravo! That was awesome.
JMB: Awwwww … Thanks, kind sir!
AJ: Beowulf, The Midgard Epic was recently published. Can you tell me how that came about?
JMB: I hadn’t submitted any of my writing since April of 2012. I went through a long dry spell. However, something magical happened in May. I began sensing an increasing excitement for the Warcraft movie. I read it’s prequel, Durotan, by Christie Golden. It was like being 17 again. I felt a renewed interest in my creativity. Through social media, I began interacting with other creatives. I stumbled upon TEGG- (The Ed Greenwood Group) I read their books and engaged with their authors. That’s when I met Briana Robertson. From a tweet she did about SSP, I learned about the open call for Unleashed: Monsters Vs. Zombies. I wrote a story for it, and submitted it within two weeks. They gave me courage to submit my rhyming Beowulf. Lisa Vasquez contacted me and offered me a deal for the book. Of course I said yes! It has been the best decision I’ve ever made. My writing and art careers are at an all time high. I am grateful to be a VIP at Stitched Smile Publications.
AJ: That is awesome to hear. So, tell me, now that Beowulf, the Midgard Epic is out, what plans do you have for the future?
JMB: With the release of Beowulf: The Midgard Epic, I have had many opportunities open up. I’m getting to do illustrations and cover art for SSP. I’ve been expanding my poetry audience. I even have a prequel and two sequels planned for my version of Beowulf. That’s not counting other stories I have yet to tell …
AJ: Sounds like things are looking up for James Matthew Byers. Can you do me a favor and tell the readers where they can find you?
JMB: Absolutely! Here are my contacts:
Find James Matthew Byers at:
AJ: Thank you, James, for coming and hanging out with me and the readers.
JMB: It’s been a pleasure! Thank you for interviewing me. I’ve had a blast, good sir!