BY: TYLER FYFE
In recent years, spoken word poetry is becoming an increasingly relevant form of expression exposing us to new voices outside the peripherals of a sluggish and unsteady publishing industry.
Shane Koyczan is one of those voices that may echo like Ginsberg’s in years to come.
After opening for the Dalai Lama, performing at the Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and receiving over 15 million views on his 2013 To This Day Project video, Shane is definitely one of the most accomplished poets to hold a pen in modern times.
Despite recognition, Shane understands that being a poet cannot be measured by the length of his résumé, but only by the width in which his words stretch across generations.
Recently wrapping up the Blue Dot tour with David Suzuki, Shane and I had a conversation about the evolution of poetry, living with depression and the tattoos left by childhood.
Spoken word is rising pretty steadily in popularity and with the innovation of YouTube, do you think the platform for poets to get recognized has been democratized?
Yea, I think the Internet has been a great way for artists to get recognized for the last little while. You have seen a lot of discovery, and you do not have to travel to listen to music from other countries. And you are starting to hear voices that people want to hear. One of the problems with the publishing industry in general is that they are not publishing any new writers or new voices. They are sticking with the people who are tried and true. And I get it, those are great writers, but to keep things moving forward and to keep ideas fresh you need to hear those new voices. And I think that is what the Internet has done; it’s given that back to the people. You don’t need to go to your library to find a voice that speaks to you or you don’t have to go through hundreds of books to find a voice that will reach you in a certain way. You can go on YouTube and expose yourself to tonnes of differing views.
People tend to interchange the two words; can you offer a difference between the definitions of Spoken Word and Slam Poetry?
People think that slam poetry is a genre, and it’s not. If you want to call somebody a slam poet, then you are referring to a poet who has entered slam competitions. The only reason the word slam and poetry go together is that slam is the gimmick of getting poets in a room and having them judged by an audience. I’ve seen haikus in slams; I’ve seen sestinas and sonnets. There are all manners of poetry happening inside a poetry slam. Is there is a difference between spoken word and poetry? I don’t think there is one. If a page poet reads one of their poems out loud, that is spoken word. It’s hard when people are trying to throw up these borders around what art is. The more academic world is trying to say, “Well this isn’t real poetry.” Well I’m not going to sit here and waste time arguing with you because ultimately you don’t get to decide what future generations will say what this was or what this movement was.
It’s just like the beat poets, when they first came out they were met by a ton of oppression by other poets saying, “this isn’t traditional.” And now they are highly regarded as a poetic movement that was both a very important movement and a completely necessary movement in the literary world.
Absolutely, and you read his work now and his work was so important in terms of the evolution of thought towards poetry. It took it away from poetry having to be this rhyme scheme of A,B,A,B or whatever. All of a sudden you had this very free flowing form of thought.
Not many people these days can call themselves a professional poet, what is that lifestyle like?
I don’t know, the word professional kind of ruins the word poetry. I feel pretty blessed that this is my life; it wasn’t something I necessarily set out to do. Certainly in school every teacher or every guidance councilor you meet is trying to talk you out of a career like writing because they say “well the chances are…”
It is rewarding to be able to effect change on a personal level, rather than people who go into politics for a different kind of change. And we need politicians absolutely, but there is a sort of intimacy with what I do where I can interact with people on a one on one level that I cherish.
As far as the lifestyle goes, it gets pretty hectic, I never thought poetry would be one of those things where you need to wake up early to do interviews and press. I don’t quite understand why I have to go to sound checks. They nearly always consist of me going into the room and saying “hello” on the microphone.
I know that a lot of teachers are using it in school to get people excited about poetry and excited about writing. I think it definitely has its place. In terms of the decline of readers, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think reading is evolving. As much of a blessing the Internet is, it’s also a curse because now people are used to reading in sound bites, used to reading very short articles where the system of information delivery is so rapid. There is no wonder we are starting to see a rise in ADHD and all these attention deficit disorders that schools are dealing with. It’s because kids are consuming information at such high velocity. So I don’t think reading is dying, but people’s reading habits are significantly changing.
In Silence Is a Song We All Know The Words To, were there any major things going on in your life when you wrote the poetry collection?
That one came out of me getting off of anti-depression medication. The album and the graphic novel both go hand in hand. They are companion pieces. The idea was to create a more visceral experience and that sort of loop that happens around depression. Probably the piece that sums it up best was a piece I wouldn’t generally put on an album called Circle. It’s a simple piece about keeping your eye on depression and backing away from it until you get in the distance and all of a sudden it’s tapping on your shoulder.
It was one of those things that was like, I want to talk about this, but I don’t want to celebrate it, I don’t want to glamorize it. Talking about mental health is a really tricky thing because there is a ton of people who just don’t believe you. There are many people who are of the thought “just pull it together man” and they don’t understand that there are people who can’t even bring themselves to get out of bed— that’s how crippling it is.
When you are swallowed by that depression, you can’t see which way is up. It is sort of like being crushed by a wave in the ocean and you can’t tell if you are swimming towards the bottom or swimming towards the top. You lose all sense of direction of where the light is. And for me the album was about making that climb out towards the light, while realizing that there is going to be another wave of this coming eventually.
You’ve written some beautiful pieces as a result. Is depression a hindrance or asset to your creativity?
It can be a hindrance because when you are in the throes of depression, you don’t want to write, you don’t want to create, you don’t want to do anything. It’s a really lonely and stark frame of mind and it’s certainly not my muse. I don’t look forward to depression so I can write about it.
Your novel Stickboy deals with themes of bullying. Can you tell me a bit about your own experience with bullying?
Yea I got bullied a lot. I grew up in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories and I guess somebody noticed that my grandparents were raising me instead of my parents, but made the leap to a manufactured conclusion that my parents didn’t want me. And that started going around in school “your parents don’t love you, your parents don’t want you.” And hearing that I cried and that was the genesis of people being like “let’s make him cry today.” It was sort of that blood in the water mentality with all these sharks circling you and they knew it was easy then to make me cry and that was sort of the game for the day. It was a pretty horrible period growing up. And it didn’t really change all that much.
Stickboy was one of those things that when I wrote it, I didn’t really mean for it to be published, it was just me working through a process hoping for catharsis, but at the same time realizing that catharsis may not be possible and this is likely something I am going to carry with me for the rest of my life. And maybe that is kind of the gift of it, being able to share it with other people. But Stickboy tells both sides of the story. When my grandparents retired, we moved to the Okanagan in British Columbia, and I thought, “This is going to be great. I’m going to get to reinvent myself. I’m going to leave this horrible world of bullying behind.” And then it started happening again in the Okanagan and that’s when something just broke inside of me and I thought I just can’t do this for another three years. So I ended up becoming the thing that I hated and living on the other side of that spectrum. In Stickboy I wanted to show how easy it is to make that transition from one side of things to the other.
Really difficult…really, really hard. You are all of a sudden watching your life from the outside. Granted, my life didn’t revolve around people singing at me, if that was the worst of it I probably would have had a really beautiful day (laughs).
It was really hard to sit there and see kids being picked on and not stand up from the audience and say, “HEY FUCKING QUIT IT.”
The audience just had to sit there and accept it. And for me, I didn’t really want to create another dramatic piece about bullying because that to me is the wrong genre. When you talk about bullying it is horror. The people who are being bullied dread going to school, they dread seeing the people that torment them. It is a form of torture.
In the poem Trolls, you talk specifically about cyber-bullying. What do you think our next step is as a society in confronting cyber-bullying?
With cyber bullying there is that masked mentality and your face isn’t attached to what you are doing to other people. Potatoepeeler149 could be anybody. But if you gave somebody a mask, that wouldn’t give them the right to go out and physically hurt someone, so why does this give you the right to emotionally scar someone? I think at this point we are still in the midst of the conversation about what we do. We don’t want to turn the Internet into this police state. I think for the most part, what I would like to see happen is to watch our perspective evolve. I think we need to examine what is going on in our society that drives bullying.
Somebody once said to me about bullying “It’s just a part of growing up. You get bullied. You grow up. It happens and you deal with it.”
And then they actually asked “What would you replace it with?” and that was the part that really got me and I said “why would you replace it with anything? Why can’t we let it be a part of our past and evolve?”
When people hear the word evolve they think, “grow gills and breathe underwater,” but evolve means to recognize a higher bond and elevate your consciousness, directing consideration towards others.