A way with words

Canadian poet Shane Koyczan performs at Millennium Place Thursday

"It wasn't like 'Oh I'm about to define Canada,'" said Shane Koyczan, reminiscing about the moments before he stepped onto the stage at BC Place over two years ago to deliver his stirring poem, We Are More at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

"For me, it was a gauge of how far I've come. Am I able to do what I do on this stage? Can I take it to this level? And for me, I got my answer that night," he said.

That answer came to the 36-year-old writer and poet after over a decade of toiling in cafés and bars, honing his uniquely powerful stage performance.

"For anyone that wants to make a living in spoken word, you really have to work. It's not one of those things where I'm just sitting around waiting for the phone to ring for my next spoken word gig. You have to go out there and show that this is the value of what you do," he said.

Koyczan spent his formative years in Yellowknife living with his grandparents, where he first turned to writing to combat the desolation of one of Canada's northernmost cities.

After moving to Penticton as a shy teenager, Koyczan enrolled in an acting class as another way to deal with the constant teasing he suffered at the hands of high school bullies.

It was at this point that he realized he might have some talent, and, while attending Okanagan University College, he started to use poetry as another way to express his inner turmoil.

"What generally attracted me to (poetry), was being able to express my thoughts or opinions in a very direct way," he said from his home in the Southern Interior. "With storytelling or short story writing or novel writing, you're taking a very long journey. Poetry to me was the most direct route."

Koyczan's route from coffee shop obscurity to critically-acclaimed author to Olympic performer began in earnest in the late '90s, when he would wander into the comedy clubs on Vancouver's Commercial Drive to see standups like Zach Galifianakis and Graham Clark perform.

"They were all working on their bits, and I thought 'So why doesn't spoken word do that? Why don't I work on a show that's an actual show?'" he said.

It wasn't until years later that Koyczan moved away from the 15-minute routines he was performing in Vancouver at the start of the new millennium, to a fully developed stage show that has made him Canada's must-see spoken word performer.

The first Canadian winner of the U.S. Individual National Poetry Slam Championship said his creative process is the same whether writing for the stage or the page.

"I tend to write backwards so I start with the ending then I work towards the beginning, just because I've been to so many poetry readings where people start clapping halfway through someone's reading. It's just an awkward pause, it's not the end of the poem!" he shouted playfully. "It was like a monster in reverse, you start with the skin and you tuck all the skeleton and musculatry (sic) inside of it and throw it all out," he added.

With Koyczan becoming an overnight sensation following his poignant appearance at the 2010 Olympics, he said he often gets requests to perform his love song to Canada, We Are More, which he wrote three years prior to the Canadian Tourism Commission asking him to write a piece celebrating his native country.

"People do ask for that poem a lot, but my problem with performing it is that it will never be what it was that night. If you need to see it again, go on YouTube or wherever the hell they have it," he said.

His performance resonated with people across the country who were drawn to Koyczan's graceful handling of common national stereotypes that outlined Canadians' decades-long struggle with defining their own identity, an ongoing process in his mind. "I think our identity is changing. Canadians are starting to realize that we need to be part of shaping our identity. Otherwise it becomes someone else's vision," he said. "It's the journey, that's what finding out what our identity is. I think that is Canada's identity. We don't name our identity because we're trying to achieve it, we're trying to achieve something better," he added. Koyczan, who admits his Olympic performance in front of more than a billion TV viewers is "the only way (some people) will ever recognize me," said the most rewarding part of his work remains the moments when people from different walks of life can connect through his performances.

"The best part of what I do for me, is going to a show and having a 16-year-old kid relate to a 90-year-old man on the other side of the theatre and they're both crying over the same piece because they've experienced something similar," he said.

A running theme in Koyczan's work is this notion of connectedness; something he feels is missing from our technology-obsessed society that spends more and more time online.

"It's funny because technology is one of those things that, as it separates us it brings us together It's leading to all kinds of different problems where people aren't interacting in real life," he said.

Ultimately, Koyczan thinks the proliferation of online social networks can ultimately be traced back to the basic human fear of dying that so many writers before him have struggled with in their work.

"We need to accept the fact that we're dying. We're all dying, all the time and we can't use the excuse of an afterlife to keep us from having to do something incredible with our lives," he said.

"You all have stories. You're the writer of your story and you're editing out the best parts, you're editing out the parts that you fear and those are the parts that take you somewhere."

Check out Koyczan's story Thursday (Oct. 18) at Millennium Place where he will perform alongside Ivan Coyote, who he calls "hands down my favourite storyteller in Canada" as part of the Whistler Arts Council's Performance Series, starting at 8 p.m.

The $25 tickets are available by phone at 604-935-8410 or online at www.artswhistler.com.

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