Shane Koyczan’s name to our generation inspires a familiar comfort; his story is worn like a heart carefully stitched on his baggy t-shirt sleeve. Growing up awkward in a unique family bred social troubles; his stories about empowering this vulnerability has become a trademark strength.
I almost didn’t buy a ticket to see Shane this past Saturday, but I’m glad I did. Though, yes I did see last year’s Edmonton performance for April’s National Poetry Month, this year in Halifax was an entirely new context. Like last year, I laughed, cried, and grinned with heartwarmed connection with each stanza of his spoken word art guiding the room of similarly secret broken souls through group therapy. This year, I was with friends new and old in a beautiful Maritime United Church; last year I independently ensured I wouldn’t miss an opportunity for a live performance at the Royal Alberta Museum. Each time, Shane’s words resonated with depth and sincerity, however this time the context of my own appreciation had shifted. I was also surrounded by a support system, we shared in the vulnerable experience. (for the United Church creed to truly take hold, one mustn’t feel alone.)
For the audience in the pews of St. Matthew’s magnificently colonial church building in downtown Halifax, our discomfort was met with an opening joke from the stage when Shane explained he was still coming to terms with his “ecclesiaphobia”, or, a fear of churches. Though, it was a fascinating combination. The modern religion is self-awareness and mental health activism. United churches are about social justice and providing community. This building was a meeting place, our preacher was an uncomfortable poet who enveloped us under his poetic wing and cared for our fears with soothing, and often accidental, comedic cadences. Some accidental ‘ecclesia-profanities’ were met with an embarrassed hung head and anticipatory glance up at the wooden rafters (expecting a lightning strike). It was a key way to break the tension and just settle in for a mildly hedonistic evening of honesty.
Between particularly emotional stanzas, or in moments following applause, he was regaining composure to be able to approach another similar but separate emotional memory location. Memories being particularly precious following a cycling accident which he references for context to explain the tablet attached to the microphone stand. Memory is a tricky thing, we have a selective database to choose from, and a picky one at the best of times. It is innately the most personal possession we have, for many memories have never been shared. This poetry is one way to communicate what is otherwise challenging to give voice.
This attitude is why each word of poetry has been warmly received – it is our composite experience of which we can be most proud; standing up to bullies, or standing up against them 20 years later, it is mostly important to ensure we come to terms with our ability and not their judgement. Any day we resolve this dilemma within ourselves is a positive day to look towards being the person we’ve always wanted to be. That is what is at the core of this movement. To resolve these feelings within ourselves first, and all the rest is what comes from a changed perspective.
Shane’s answers to the same six questions I have asked numerous times are characteristic of the person we know from the stage. He has curated a public persona very close to the heart which persists into his approach to the realities of living. Our group in attendance at the Saturday evening church venue was swept away by his sincerity with story, wisdom, and acceptance of what cannot be changed. He has graciously accepted his past as inspiration, not something to be ashamed or apologetic over.
Q1: what is a favourite piece (of your own)?
SK: It’s always changing. A lot of the time the newest piece will take the first position, but there are always some pieces that are always hovering in the top five. Turn On A Light is one of those pieces… I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what the others might be.
Q2: what is a ‘cover poem’ you particularly like to perform and/or hear?
SK: Geoff Kagan Trenchard
has a fantastic piece called Jason that I love to cover. I think it really captures a lot about growing up awkward and the strength it takes to be who you are. The small victories are often hard won.
Q3: while touring, is there a road trip go-to album/artist/podcast/etc?
SK: Not really. I listen to a lot of different stuff. There’s usually som Ani Difranco on deck, but then there’s also bands like We Are The City
. Lots of classical music too.
Q4: what has been an outstanding place to play a show (venue and/or location)?
SK: They all have their own flavor (something that makes the special), but I was really happy to have just played The Winter Garden Theatre in Toronto. Beautiful venue and it was a fantastic show.
(+ where would you like to go that you have not yet been? )
SK: I suppose I’d like to see more of Asia. I’ve hit a few places there but it’s a huge continent and I feel like I haven’t seen enough of it.
Q5: what is a spirit animal you identify with in your performance, life?
. No question. Any animal that generates its own ink is destined to be some kind of writer or artist
Q6: when in recent memory, or ever, have you laughed the hardest?
SK: I laugh best when I travel with my band, The Short Story Long. Just a great group of folks and we love making each other laugh.
JK: On your career, success, vulnerable storytelling, and connection to many:
– how does working with musical accompianment change your performance?
SK: Music makes it easier to get back to an emotional space… it’s not always easy to do in a solo performance.
JK: Your gracious presence is called heroic by many, SuperShane being a popular graphic to accompany the popular To This Day poem.. “For the bullied and the beautiful” sums up the audience you’ve built. How has this changed perspective affected how you relive each poem motivated by memory?
SK: I’m not sure it has. I certainly don’t feel heroic… these are just the challenges I’ve faced… I know people who have faced and are facing much more.
JK: What do you envision/hope for Poetry’s future?
SK: The future of poetry is always going to depend on people. Poets and lovers of poetry… as long as we have those two ingredients the world will supply enough love and turmoil to bake up fresh poetry.
JK: Did you get a Halifax donair?
SK: Still picking chunks of it out of my beard.
Shane’s performed words dance lightly among some of the hardest subjects. They have become definitions our human experience of pain, rejection, bullying, shame, and romantic desire. As an audience we continue to use these moments to reflect on our own identifications and come to understand the rooted human nature in the experience. It is not just our problem, but a cultural one. Perhaps it’s not a problem at all, it’s just life. For actions which are problematic – bullying attitudes, fearful rejection of each other, and dismissive anger, these words are our tools to fight against the anger which boils up in us.
These words he has curated for personal release has been met with ongoing support and resonates deeply with other artists. One amazing production is the graphic novel “Silence is a Song I Know All the Words To”, filled with beautiful illustrations by Gareth Gaudin of some choice favourites of Shane Koyczan’s profound work.
Thanks to Shane, and all poets among us for inspiring active words of healing. Release is often the most valuable form of growing past our problems, yet is one of the hardest things to do. Spoken work brings a visceral appreciation because one must be present to hear each word, not allow your eyes to dart across the page as one often does through reading, which is why myself and others familiar with ADHD often appreciates this live performance’s intensity.
This National Poetry Month, I have been inspired to keep the octopus appeased – let’s produce useful ink!
A mural in Dartmouth, NS supporting tentacle spirited battles