By Kassandra Engmann
Shane Koyczan is a Canadian spoken word artist and writer. His work covers a wide variety of topics, such as bullying, cancer, death, and mental health issues. He has performed at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics opening ceremony and presented at TED2013: The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered. On Tuesday November 14, Koyczan will take centre stage at Bronson Centre Theatre. It’s an all ages show.
Apt613 was able to talk to Shane and pull back the curtain on the person behind the poems.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Apt613: Thank you for taking to time to speak with us today. To start off, what was it like growing up in Yellowknife?
Shane Koyczan: It’s a pretty isolated community. It’s starting to change now but growing up for me, it was a pretty desolate place. I didn’t have a lot of friends which meant that I didn’t have a lot of friends outside of school either. It was just very isolated. Writing was the only place I could get [feelings] out. I’ve always been writing and in various styles like short stories, poetry or whatever.
What was it like to perform for the first time in front of an audience? How was their reaction?
I think public speaking is still one of the world’s greatest fears and probably for good reason because you’re standing up there, you’re being very vulnerable and the audience is a heron – they can snatch you if they want so I think there’s always that sort of tenuous existence between the performer and the audience. Luckily, if you’re the kind of performer that isn’t trying to cater to audience then it matters less [how they react], I think.
After a childhood growing up hearing comments from various people that nothing you do or say has value, you start to believe that. When I got to university, when I started sharing my essays and other writings, professors were a little bit more encouraging about what I had to say and around there is when I got up on stage for the first time.
I want levity in my life. I want happiness and I want joy and there’s a lot of that in the show. I think when people come to the show they’re surprised because they think it’s going to be this very dark journey through this person’s life. I survive based on levity that’s what preserves my sanity and it’s become a very big part of my life.
What are some of the most touching messages that you have received from people who have heard or read your poem, To This Day?
The most rewarding messages come from people that bully other people, from people who are like “you know what, I’ve never really looked at it this way because I’m so wrapped up in my own sort of hurt and isolation that I understand that I’m going about it all wrong.” And the most rewarding ones are from people that are like, “okay yeah I’ve changed. I’m going to use this physical strength that I have to defend the defenceless, I can still get up that physical aggression but in a different way and a more positive way and use to help people,” which sounds crazy but it warms my heart.
But then you get a contrast from kids who are out on their particular ledges and you never really know what happens. All I’m armed with are the numbers and you know that’s not what I’m trained to do. I’m a writer, I’m a poet, and I’m a performer. I’m not a counsellor, I don’t have that training to help kids through their particular woes. Some kids you hear from and they come back and they’re like. “you really saved my life,” and other kids disappear into the ether and you don’t know.
There’s nothing you can say to a kid that’s going to be like, “here’s the answer to your problem.” A lot of it is stuff that they don’t want to hear, that it’s just going to take time. Your life will change. To them, school goes on forever and ever, especially when you’re in it.
A lot of discussion about dealing with bullying seems to put the onus on those who are bullied to fix their situation and forgive their bullies. What do you think about that concept and have you been able to forgive your bullies?
Yeah, I see what school is and I’m distanced enough from school now to see it for what it is and it’s a lot of people just guessing. Not every trespass is the same, and that makes the hurt unequal so it’s hard to say, “here’s the bottom line thing you should do,” because not everyone has the exact same experience.
A lot of us can put our hands up and say that we’ve been bullied, but to what extent? There was a young woman who was being bullied in school and then all of a sudden, one day, her bullies invited her to have lunch with them and they took her out into the woods. And then they just left her there. And that doesn’t sound like a big deal, they just left her there but then as she tells this story… she’s blind.
At a certain point bullying becomes something else, it becomes reckless endangerment, it becomes assault. So it’s up to people to decide what is bullying to you what does it mean to you.
How do you feel when you get off the stage? Is there a sense of emotional relief?
Honestly, it’s become exhaustion more and more. You’re stepping into emotional spaces over and over again and they’re not places that you want to exist all the time. I want levity in my life. I want happiness and I want joy and there’s a lot of that in the show. I think when people come to the show they’re surprised because they think it’s going to be this very dark journey through this person’s life. I survive based on levity that’s what preserves my sanity and it’s become a very big part of my life.
So what do you hope that people get out of coming to your shows?
I’m really just trying to give them permission to be emotional beings. I think we live in a world that everyone is being told for the sake of productivity, you’ve got to shut that shit off. I think more and more, people are losing that side of themselves. So I’m really just trying to take people on a tour with themselves and remind them this is a safe place to do that.
Thank you for doing this interview, Shane. I look forward to seeing you perform.
Shane Koyczan is performing at the Bronson Centre (211 Bronson Ave) on Tuesday November 14 at 8pm. Tickets cost $25 online and are available in person at Vertigo Records and Compact Music.