It Just Kind of Snowballed

Having an instant audience of many millions didn’t really change things much for Shane Koyczan.

“I think a lot of people expected that everything was going to be different, but it’s really not,” he says modestly. “I still go out and do what I do. I tour a lot, and that’s kind of it. But I am surprised that people recognize me a little more.”

Koyczan is the 34-year-old spoken-word poet who electrified audiences around the world with his high-energy performance of a poem called We Are More at the start of last year’s Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Perhaps more than any other element of the opening ceremonies, this short poem became fodder for water-cooler conversations with its spirited definition of Canada as “an experiment going right for a change,” and “the what in what’s new.”

While international exposure may not have changed the poet, Koyczan says it has increased people’s awareness of spoken word poetry as an art form.

“People always ask you, what does it taste like? They want you to liken it to something. They need to know, because they’re afraid to try it, or whatnot,” he says.

“And I say, I can’t really explain it to you, you’re just going to have to go see. The Olympics gave people an opportunity to see what that kind of art can be.”

Whitehorse audiences will have that opportunity this week when Koyczan performs at the Yukon Arts Centre with the experimental acoustic-folk trio, Short Story Long. The group was named new artist of 2009 at the B.C. Interior Music Awards.

The Olympics may have provided Koyczan’s biggest-ever audience, but it was not the first time the Yellowknife-born poet had won acclaim. In 2000, he became the first poet from outside the United States to win the prestigious U.S. National Poetry Slam.

This week’s appearance is also not his first visit to the Yukon. Four years ago, he performed at the Dawson City Music Festival with Mighty Mike McGee and C.R. Avery as the “talk-rock” trio, Tons of Fun University (T.O.F.U.).

Raised by his grandparents, Koyczan moved at age 14 to Penticton, where he still lives. Although he had always written, he started to pursue poetry seriously in first year university and later “kind of fell into” slam poetry.

“I’d never even heard of it until I saw a poster on a streetlamp in Vancouver that said you could win money for poetry. I thought, that’s awesome, I’ll give it a try. And it just kind of snowballed.”

Contrary to common misperception, slam refers to the performance competition itself, not to a specific kind of poetry, he explains.

“I’ve seen people win slams with sonnets, or odes, just about everything. I saw somebody in New York win with a limerick,” he says. “It really has nothing to do with the style of poetry.”

Koyczan’s own style was influenced by many Canadian predecessors, including Leonard Cohen, Tom Wayman and Al Purdy.

“I like Milton Acorn. I love Irving Layton – The Bull Calf is probably one of my favourite poems.”

Then there’s Ani diFranco – “musically and lyrically, what she did I thought was pretty incredible” – not to mention the man Time magazine dubbed the “laureate of American lowlife,” Charles Bukowski.

“Anybody who can craft a curse as well as Bukowski is alright with me.”

A number of YouTube videos hint at the range of Koyczan’s subject matter and approach, from boisterously funny vignettes to the tender memory of the life-affirming wisdom he gained from sharing a hospital room with a 9-year-old boy dying of cancer (The Crickets Have Arthritis).

“A lot of the experiences I’ve had definitely revolved around that [life-affirmation]. Meeting specific people at certain times of my life and just realizing how much that reverberates throughout my life is a pretty important theme.”

Koyczan’s willingness to be emotionally naked in public may stem from the pain he endured as an overweight youngster, especially when confronted by a sadistic gym teacher who insisted that he play on the Skins team for basketball.

“I was like, ‘Why, why are you doing this to me? You know I already have issues about this,'” he recalls. “So I think it was a little bit easier for me to be emotionally naked rather than physically. I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure it out.”

Shane Koyczan and Short Story Long perform Friday, March 4 at the Yukon Arts Centre, beginning at 8 pm.

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