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Shane Koyczan: Getting back to the air

The renowned poet and spoken word artist on how art is an element that feeds us, how hard the pandemic was on artists and the arts, and the trepidation of getting back on the road
Shane Koyczan, pictured at the Key City Theatre in Cranbrook, 2017. Koyczan returns to the Key City Theatre on Tueday, May 10, 2022. (Barry Coulter photo)

The last time poet and spoken word artist Shane Koyczan talked with the Cranbrook Townsman, it was two years ago, just ahead of his show scheduled for the Key City Theatre. The conversation was about how much the world had changed since the last time we talked.

Shortly after that, the world changed again — suddenly and profoundly — and his show was cancelled, like everything else in the world.

Koyczan is at the forefront of today’s spoken word arts movement and poetry as performance. The Penticton artist and writer has reached millions with his message, speaking out against bullying, and celebrating tolerance and the individual. His books, films and recordings have made him an artist of international standing.

But his performance, and deep connection with audiences, are really what set him apart. For this reason, among others, the pandemic, with its shut-downs and restrictions, was especially hard — not only for him, but on the arts and artists in general.

With a new tour on the horizon, and a new Cranbrook show in the offing, Koyczan spoke recently with the Townsman, to discuss how much the world had changed since the last time we talked.

“It really felt like having the rug yanked out from under us,” Koyczan said. “There’s no safety net for the arts. You’re a trapeze artist but there’s no net beneath you. With the Arts, there’s no pension plan, there’s no unemployment insurance.”

Like so many others, Koyczan had to spend the last two years, in isolation, not really being able to work.

“One of the great things about art is it does evolve, it does take the shape of the container that it’s in,” he said. “It’s like water, it will take on that certain form.

“But for touring artists, like musicians, it’s really hard to get that same sort of energy going, living in a now two-dimensional world. Having to exist on the Zoomscape, as it were. It’s a very different energy.”

The isolation was especially hard, creatively, professionally and personally. Koyczan said a lot of people were under the impression the enforced idleness would be great for an artist like him, that he “could just stay home and write.”

“But inspiration doesn’t work that way. Inspiration is an outside force. It comes to you through what you experience. And what I experienced over the last two years was just miles and miles of depression, and we continued to look at our phones and scroll past tragedy hoping to find something that would lift us up a little bit — some art that would be a salve for what was happening to our mental health.”

As the pandemic was beginning, Koyczan was affected by personal loss — “the heaviest loss of my life” — with the death of his grandmother, who had essentially raised him as a child. “So I’m going straight from the stages of grief into an echo chamber of the haunted house by myself.”

“When people talk about isolation, I think we really have an understanding of what that’s like now.”

Koyczan feels we have not even begun dealing with the trauma that the pandemic has caused — the isolation, the loss, the deprivation.

“I think our empathy was damaged. We lived like ninjas for two years. When I was a kid, that would have been the coolest thing ever. Living that way as an adult, you don’t see who’s breaking underneath that mask. You don’t know if they’re smiling or biting their tongue. It’s done something to us.”

The world has become more divided, and people more divided from each other as well.

“The last two years, the one thing we were all able to do because we had time on our hands was get granular about the things that happen in our society. The world became way more divided. And as much as we say our devices are connecting us, it’s really chewing through a part of our empathy, and it’s damaging us in a way that we aren’t fully seeing the consequences of yet. We’re starting to see those consequences emerge.

“We’re shorter with each other, we’re meaner with each other. That has become amplified, and because of that we’re hearing the voices of other people less. We’re sweeping them off to the side and thinking they aren’t important, and turning up the volume on things that agree with us rather than things that challenge us.

“I always try to come at something with a sort of rounded approach,” Koyczan said. “To me, the key to empathy is perspective. You have to look at things in a lot of different ways, even ways that you politically or spiritually wouldn’t — you have to put yourself in that position. You can feel how someone else may feel because of one thing or another.”

The decline of the arts during the pandemic was not just hard on artists. It was hard on everyone. Because art is an element, Koyczan says. Inspiration is ethereal, and intangible, but we can “copy and paste it into our lives,” as he puts it.

“A lot of people were deprived of inspiration. Inspiration and art are one of those elements that we need in our lives, like a mineral.”

How do we value art, Koyczan asks? How do we value the things in our lives that give us something that we can’t say is tangible, that feeds a different part of us, that doesn’t put food in our belly, but puts food in our minds.

“There’s nutrition in other areas of our lives that we need to pay attention to.”

Which brings us to the now, and the new tour Koyczan is finally setting out on, the new material he has been writing — for oh yes, he has been writing — and the theme of the shows where he will be presenting that material.

“One of the parts of the show I’ve been writing is about how touch is a vitamin, and we’ve been deprived of it for two years.”

He says he is overjoyed to be going back on the road — a tour of B.C. But there is still a lot of trepidation. He’s seen this movie before.

“There were times during the pandemic where we tried organizing shows, or a little tour, or something just to test the water — setting it up, booking the venue, booking hotels, all that work — and three times the rug was pulled out again as new restrictions came in. This time, I don’t what’s going to happen.

“It’s hard, not just on me, but on the fans too. They want that booster shot of hope. People are starved for that, and are looking for that. And I’m looking forward to going out and being amongst that again, and giving myself some of that medicine in that regard. But I really don’t know what’s going to happen.

“Getting out on the road is very exciting. I’m scared I’m going to get in the car, all packed up and ready to go, and head out the first show, and then something will happen … ‘sorry, you can’t go to the Arts show, but there’s a hockey game down the road.’”

Koyczan says the saving grace through the last two years has been the fans. They still want to support you, even though you’re not there, or they don’t see you every day … they’re there to help bolster your spirits or pick you up.’

There were times when Koyczan thought to himself what is the point. “The point of waking up tomorrow to do more of the nothing I’m doing.

“When you get in those depression foxholes it’s very hard to dig your way out. You start to lose your sense of up and down, and before you know it you’re digging down instead of up. It’s like you’ve been rolled around under a wave, in a way, and all of a sudden you’re swimming down instead of up, and it’s hard to get back to the air. We’ve been suffocating these last couple of years.”

But Koyczan is coming back into the air, with the Spring. And both he and fans of poetry and spoken word are looking forward to what he is bringing.

“The show constantly evolves,” he said. “What will be the very first show on the tour will not be the last show on the tour. As I do it more, as I get more comfortable. A lot of it is working things out on stage. It’s therapy for me. You find a way to deal with it.”

Shane Koyczan’s May tour is presented by the Kootenay Concert Connection in association with 2Day FM, and is coming back to the Key City Theatre on Tuesday, May 10, at 7:30 p.m.

Barry Coulter

About the Author: Barry Coulter

Barry Coulter had been Editor of the Cranbrook Townsman since 1998, and has been part of all those dynamic changes the newspaper industry has gone through over the past 20 years.
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