Shane Koyczan’s poems cut through rhetoric, cut to the quick and leave people shaken and somehow changed.
The spoken word performer burst onto the world stage in front of a billion people during the 2010 Winter Olympics with the first two words of his poem We Are More: “Define Canada.”
Slower than his typical percussion patter, he went on to let lines sink in like “We are an experiment going right for a change.”
What resulted was a goose bump inducing three and a half minutes that rocketed Koyczan straight into the hearts of Canadians.
Born in Yellowknife and raised in Penticton, the 36-year-old has been performing around the world for more than a decade.
Kamloops finally gets to experience the impact of his show in person with his first local performance on June 21 during the city’s new Thrive Fest.
“I’ve never been there,” said Koyczan during a phone interview last week. “I’ll have to tweet with people and be like ‘What do I need to do? Where do I need to go for your best sandwich?’ I’m always excited to find out the secret things about a place, especially from the locals that are like, ‘Oh, you got to do this.’ ”
Although he’s uncertain what he’ll offer Kamloops audiences, he said he tries hard to bring meaning to every show.
“There will be humour, there will also be moments that are sometimes difficult. But towards the end I think they leave feeling better about themselves or feeling more connected to the world they live in.”
It’s good timing for Kamloops, since the appearance is on the heels of Koyczan’s latest international hit, To This Day, which may become an even bigger sensation than We Are More.
His newest piece is an emotionally tumultuous depiction of the way bullying affected three people — a girl called ugly because of a birthmark over half her face, a boy on prescription anti-depressant pills who is nicknamed Popper and Koyczan himself.
Koyczan recounts how years later, the victims’ torment lives on “to this day.”
“She doesn’t think she’s beautiful,” he recites. “They’ll never understand/that she’s raising two kids/whose definition of beauty/begins with the word mom/because they see her heart.”
The poem reportedly drove wealthy venture capitalists, scientists and philanthropists to tears when Koyczan performed it at a TED Live event in California last February.
TED started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from the fields of technology, entertainment and design. It has since grown into a non profit organization devoted to “ideas worth spreading,” attracting such high profile speakers as Bono, Al Gore and Colin Powell.
Koyczan called the experience a “life highlight.”
“I don't recall ever having felt so held by an audience. Thank you,” he tweeted after the show.
The poem’s impact has also reached people around the world thanks to a Youtube video that was posted last February.
Entitled To This Day Project, the video uses a series of 20-second animation clips that Koyczan solicited from artists across the globe.
The powerful phrases and visuals are obviously resonating with vast numbers of people — the video has gotten more than eight million hits so far.
Innumerable posts to the video expressed heart-rending emotions.
“I read this at my school during a poem day,” posted a young American fan named Tyler Reed. “Everyone was quiet they finally listened some were even crying.”
Koyczan told The Daily News that he has been taking it in a bit at a time.
“Letters come in every day. I can really only read about three a day. They are really emotional letters so it’s tough to get through a lot of the stuff,” he said.
“For me I think the most rewarding aspect is that … it is getting to the people that need to hear it.”
To This Day has only continued to propel Koyczan’s stratospheric trajectory. These days, he’s a man in demand.
He’s currently working on an opera in conjunction with the Vancouver Opera Society as well as a show with the Ottawa Symphony Orchestra.
He’s also developing ideas for the New Frontier Story Lab — a Sundance Film Festival Institute program offering interdisciplinary support to artists working at the convergence of film, art and new media technologies.
And he’s preparing for shows in Oxford and working on a project with the National Film Board of Canada.
“The list goes on and on and on,” he said.
So how does he deal with the pressure?
“One thing at a time.”
By outward appearances, Koyczan appears to be taking his increasing fame in stride. But he had to fight many a tormentor, naysayer and his own insecurities to get to his place in the spotlight.
“I’ve been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself,” he said during his TED performance.
Koyczan began his meteoric rise humbly — certainly with no thought to a career. He just loved poetry.
While in university, he and a friend started organizing poetry readings in Penticton and things grew from there — in spite of Koyczan’s self doubts.
“I kept thinking, ‘I better start thinking about a real job. I better start thinking about a real career,’ ” he said.
“There’s all those pressures until I realized I am sustaining myself with this. Why can’t I consider this my real job?
“That’s when I quit my job job and was like, I’m just going to try and do this full time. And it just kept snowballing and getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”
His love of poetry is still at the root of his creativity but he despairs of the place it holds in today’s world.
“We live in age when everybody says, ‘Oh, poetry, it’s dead.’ And it’s like I’ve been fighting tooth and nail to say, ‘No it’s not. It’s really not.’ It still means something to a lot of people that are out there,” he said.
Koyczan’s deeply grateful that his growing legion of fans is proving him right. Keeping the love of poetry alive is one of the reasons behind his deep appreciation for his most ardent devotees.
“These are the people that will here I’m doing a show 500 miles away and will fly over there to go see it. So I’m pretty in awe of all of my fans.”