Sold-out tours. Standing ovations. YouTube videos with millions of views — one with more than 20 million. A knockout performance at the 2010 Winter Olympics opening ceremony in Vancouver.
With these kinds of credits, you might assume Shane Koyczan was a rock star.
But Koyczan is a poet — a 39-year-old Canadian spoken word artist who's most known for writing from the heart about his personal experiences with bullying, depression and suicide. In his 2013 TED Talk "To this day ... for the bullied and beautiful," (currently nearing 5 million views), Koyczan opens with "When I was a kid, I hid my heart under the bed because my mother said if you're not careful some day someone's gonna break it. Take it from me, under the bed is not a good hiding spot. I know because I've been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself."
These days Koyczan stands up for himself through albums (four so far), books (six), touring — he'll be at Palmer Lake's Tri-Lakes Center for the Arts on March 11 — and more.
And, as he shared during a phone conversation with the Indy, he still struggles.
Indy: How do you define "poet"?
Shane Koyczan: I try not to. [Laughs.] Poetry is such a strange word, because a lot of times when people hear the word poetry they run screaming in the other direction. The association that they have with it is these tomes that they're given in school full of flowery language about things that they can't relate to ... but that's one of the amazing things about art. It continues to evolve. And especially around language art, the language changes, like we don't speak like Shakespeare anymore. And so you know suddenly it feels like poetry is accessible to a lot of people because it's speaking to people in their own language about things that affect them on a daily basis. And so I think that's why we're starting to see that sort of resurgence of poetry starting to fill rooms.
Do you think it really is the spoken word that has changed the concept of poetry today, is bringing that community around it?
I think that spoken word is taking the concept of poetry right back to its roots. When it first started off, it was an oral tradition. It was not a written sort of thing. And you could go back to the Greeks, and whatnot, and there were bards and stuff like that, so poetry to me has always been a performative oral tradition. So spoken word is just the resurgence of that. Art tends to function in cycles. Things go away for a while and then they come back, and I think that's what's happened.
I have to say I feel like every writer puts a bit of herself/himself into their writing, whether they're writing fiction, or even journalism. But, man, you really lay it out there.
Yeah, it can be to my detriment sometimes too, a lot of the times. I meet people and they have me at a complete disadvantage. They know really super details about my life. [Laughs.] But at the same time, one of the things it allows me to do is connect with total strangers. And that has been really beautiful in a lot of ways.
What kind of toll does getting up onstage and touring take on you?
The thing is, I think a lot of people look at it and they say, well, it's not a very physically demanding sort of thing to just stand onstage and talk to people. And I guess technically that's true, unless you're having panic attacks every time you do it, and unless you consider the emotional floodgates that you have to open up each time. For me, on this tour in particular, I'm trying something different, I'm trying out an experiment because I always end up staying after shows to meet with people and thank them for coming. It's just my way of saying, "Hey, thanks for being a fan. And thanks for supporting me." I think that's a nice thing to do for people, to let them know you appreciate them. But it's become so exhausting and it's made for some really late nights. So what I'm trying to do this time around is front load it and be there at the beginning of the show to say hi to people and sign their books, and whatever, and then do the show, and then after the show, I can just go vanish and stare mindlessly into Netflix or the internet. So yeah, the emotional toll it takes is a pretty heavy chunk every night. Because you're going to places that you don't want to exist in all the time.
You're trying to let them go?
Right. And it pulls you back into that state of mind and that state of feeling. One of the things I try to do, one of the reasons my shows are so emotional — and not just sad, they're quite funny too. I gotta give people a range of things that happened in my life — but it's hard to step back into those particular spaces, some of those particular spaces. And what I try to do at every show before I read a piece is this centering moment. People ask, "Oh do you have a ritual or whatever?" There's a ritual that happens before I read any piece, and it's to constantly remind myself, OK, who was I when I wrote this? Where was I in my life when I wrote this? And that takes me back. That centers me emotionally around the piece and why it meant so much to me at the time. And while things do change, if you're stepping back into that moment, you're gonna have those feelings again. ... It's hard too. The pieces that people always want to hear are the devastating ones. The ones that are like, "Oh my god. Really?"
One of those places you step back to a lot is around the issue of bullying. Do you feel that you've been able to rewrite your story around that topic?
I think once something has happened to you, you don't get a chance to go back and edit your life. What you can do is look at it from different angles. You can turn it around in your head and start to see it for the different things that it's given you. I mean, bullying for me, it was never a fun thing, and people treat bullying like it's, like they're thinking in terms of a genre. If bullying were a film, everybody tries to label it under drama. Bullying to me growing up was a horror film. It was scary. I was terrified every day of my life when I went to school. So for me it was not a fun time. But then I look at the other things it's given me as well. Because I didn't have any friends, I had to learn to communicate in a different way. It kind of led to writing as well. I retreated deeper into journaling and things like that. I think with anything you encounter in life, the different paths that we take are gonna give us different skills. That's just inevitable. I've started to see it that way. ...
But it's always going to be something that, you know, I still have triggers to this day about certain things. And that's always just gonna be there. And I think catharsis isn't one thing that happens and that's it, you're magically fixed. I think catharsis is a process. You have to keep doing it. Otherwise it doesn't work. And there are days when you don't want to do it. And there are days when you just want to quit, and curl up in a pillow fort and just read comic books or whatever it is if you want to. There's a lot to be gleaned from that kind of reflection. But again it's not a comfortable place to be. You're talking about looking at a mirror that reveals things about you that you aren't always prepared for.
A lot of artists say they've just stopped reading comments on social media [because of the bullying]. But I was scanning through your feeds and you seem to sort of take on the negative commenters. Why is that?
I don't know that I necessarily take them on.
I guess I don't mean in an antagonistic way. But you address it.
I do. I draw attention to it. I shine a light on it. Because if I don't, then I'm right back where I started as the kid who wouldn't say anything about the people who were terrorizing him. And that did nothing for me. All that did was amplify loneliness, and despair, depression, and all those other terrible things. So yeah, I'm at a place in my life — it's very hard to do for a lot of people. It's still difficult for me to do well, because that fear is always there. That fear is always present. But it's the only way I'm gonna — I'm not a physical fighter. I don't have those gifts. I'm just not that guy. But what I do have is the muscle between my ears, and that's what I can use. And that's how I stand up for myself. That's how I fight for myself.
In your most recent album, Debris (from 2015), I noticed you used a semicolon instead of an "i" [in the word Debris on the cover]. I assume this is a nod to the Semicolon Project?
Could you talk about your choice to do that, and a little bit about the project?
I can't talk too much about the project because I don't know it all that well. What I do know about the symbolism of the semicolon is that it's not a period. It's where you could have ended your sentence, but you chose to continue. And that's really, that album for me was that moment. I think I was in Scotland at the time, and I was probably at the lowest point I've ever been in my life and I was ready to sort of end it and walk away — or not walk away, but what? Drift away? Who knows. But through a series of events chose not to do that. Chose to continue. And it's still something I still struggle with. I don't like to admit that I think about it, but I do. And it's just something that I've found me being open about it and talking to my friends about it, and them knowing about it is really important. Because they know that when I then reach out to them, it's not a flippant thing. It's something to be taken seriously.
I know you're touring right now, but what's next for you?
Oh! So much stuff! My goodness, I'm excited. I'm having a pretty productive year so I'm pretty excited. I just finished writing a kids book ... Finished another book of poetry as well. ... And I'm ready to start recording another album. And this summer, I think the thing for me is ... one of the pulls that I've felt for a long, long time is I've always loved cinema. So I'm gonna start working on a film this year. I worked a little bit on the Mad Max movie that came out a couple years ago and I think that bit me in the ass in terms of like, oh yeah, remember you always wanted to do this.
Do you know what that means? Screenwriting? Starring in something? A documentary?
Ah, I don't know if I'll necessarily star in anything, but definitely I like the writing aspect. What really appeals to me is to be able to tell a story that comes from a place of invention. A lot of what I do onstage comes from my personal experiences, and that is, like we've discussed, very draining. But I loved fiction as well growing up and I would love to be able to tell stories that come from my imagination.