Shane 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. And there is a buzz around his upcoming Cranbrook concert — a stop on his “Silence Is A Song I Know All The Words To” tour, March 30 at the Key City Theatre. Following a show in Nelson (March 21), Koyczan is pleased to be playing shows in his own backyard, for a change.
“I spent the first 10 years of my career in the States, because I couldn’t get gigs in Canada,” Koyczan told the Townsman in a phone interview from Penticton. “Nobody wanted to book spoken word. I guess not enough people had faith in that as a performance or that as an art form that could really entertain and enlighten people.
“So it’s really nice to be working in my own country for a change.”
Most of Canada became of aware of Koyczan in 2010 when he performed his poem “We Are More” at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics. But the tide started to turn for him about two years before that.
“I started touring more in Canada with my own band” he said. “A lot of people hear the word poetry and they tend to run the other direction. Put a musical element in front of it and a lot of people started coming to the shows. So I could start playing festivals, and things like that. That’s when things started to turn a corner for me.”
Koyczan is not a one man industry, however. Spoken word is catching on, and a large reason is the power of social media and the internet that gives artists their own marketing potential.
“There are a ton of great new Canadian voices,” Koyczan said. “They’re everywhere, and they’re popping up every day.
“One of the qualms I have with the publishing industry is they rely on authors who have proven sales, rather than taking a chance on new voices and getting those new voices out there. A lot of us have started carving out our own paths, especially in this technological age, where we can start putting out our own books, our own albums. We don’t have to wait for a label to get behind us to start doing that. Social media has changed a lot of that for us.”
Koyczan is a prolific artist. He has produced several books and albums of his work. His book “Stickboy” was turned into an opera, performed by the Vancouver symphony (with Libretto by Koyczan). His poetry is frequently animated, and regularly appears online on his Youtube channel. His latest album (and book and graphic novel) “Silence Is A Song I Know All the Words To,” was released last year, and continues his theme and message of dealing with the negative, in particular bullying, and finding joy in your own humanity.
“It deals with some pretty heavy subject matter, for sure, but it’s necessary,” says Koyczan, who dealt with depression and bullying issues himself growing up. “There’s a lot of people out there talking about it, but there’s not a lot of people trying to explain what it feels like. I consider it sort of an exchange of empathy. Here’s what I’m offering, and you can take from that what you can.
“But with every album I do I always trying to go deeper, to a deeper place than the previous one.”
Koyczan took a moment to discuss his writing process.
“I write every day. But sometimes it’s for five minutes, sometimes it’s for five hours. Just depends what comes. I’m always turning something over in my head. It’s starts with an idea, then I start building the metaphor, and stuff like that. But before I even touch pen to paper, I’ve thought about it for months. I never just sit down and write something that I didn’t plan out or think about for a long time. And when I do finally sit down and write, I write backwards. I start with the ending and write towards the beginning.
“I start with the last thing I want to say to people, the last image I want to leave them with. The summation of what I want to say. So that way, as I write towards the beginning, that metaphor is still there at the end. That’s the fine sharpened point of the nail I’m driving in.”
Despite the powerful tool social media can be for artists, for others it can be a double-edged sword — in particular for youth who are navigating social minefields anyway. For example, Koyczan says a lot of people have asked why he didn’t write about the cyber aspects of bullying ( he has addressed this on his new album, particularly with a piece called “Troll”).
“The simple answer is because I didn’t grow up with that,” he said. “I’m lucky, I escaped that. Computers weren’t as prevalent (when I was growing up), home was still a very safe place. But the more letters I got from kids, the more they were saying home is not a safe place anymore. Your social media gets invaded. Kids are getting text messages saying they should kill themselves? Unbelievable!
“So it was a very important thing for me to address,” Koyczan continued. “A lot of people say trolling is just for fun, but you’re really going out there and picking at people and saying that that isn’t going to cause harm.
“Just because you are wearing a mask doesn’t mean you can beat up on people, but that’s the mentality, that anonymous mob mentality. It’s the coliseum all over again.
The mob mentality of cyber-anonymity is something that can be contacted by re-establishing a face-to-face connection.
“Something I’ve wanted to do is some kind of special, with kids who are getting cyberbullied, track down the people who are doing it to them, sit them down face to face, and say ‘okay, can you say the same stuff now?’
“It’s important to make that connection again, to show that the person you’re tormenting is being affected in a real visceral way. Show them and say, ‘here’s what you’re doing. Are you still okay with that?’ It’s facing up to what you’ve done. A lot of time on the internet, you don’t have to do that.”
A lot of people in Cranbrook are excited to have the chance to see this renowned spoken word artist and poet at the Key City Theatre. And the feeling is mutual.
“I’m really excited to do Cranbrook — I’ve never been there before.,” Koyczan said. “It’s going to be fun. People are going to laugh, they’re going to go through the range of emotions with me. I’ve always enjoyed playing some of the smaller community. It’s weird now, the bigger you career becomes the more people want to hit the major centres. But I love hitting the smaller centre. The response so far, sounds like you people are really keen on listening to some poetry.”