photo courtesy of Killbeat Music and Shane Koyczan
Shane Koyczan, internationally renowned spoken word artist, just launched his latest album Debris with his band The Short Story Long. He chatted with me about his career, the accident that impacted his memory and his most recent work.
What are you most proud of in your career?
I have a weird relationship with pride because I'm always thinking the next thing has to be better. Working with the Vancouver Opera stretched me a lot and took patience. There was a lot of work in doing that but seeing it come to life was rewarding.
Why do you write?
Part of it is therapy. Part of it is just getting down "here's what I'm thinking" out there on paper. It's like a diagnostics test -- getting my feelings out there so I can look at them on the page. I love the creativity. I love being able to be concise about what I'm thinking or feeling in a way that is creative. The thing about poetry is it comes from parts of my life, but I like to write other things as well. I like to write science fiction. I like to invent things.
Do you get stage fright?
Continuously. I don't have a set ritual. I try breathing exercises. It's the wait, knowing you are about to go on. It builds the tension. Sometimes I go for a walk but most of the time it's reminding myself, "You've done this before. People purposely bought tickets to see you so they are looking forward to it."
Is this what you always wanted to do or did you have another plan?
I had another plan. I was going to be a wrestler. In school, I said I wanted to be a writer but they were quick to tell me, "Nobody makes a living being a writer. Find something else." Everything I came up with they shot down. School became this horrible place, the dream killing factory. It's not school's fault. It's just that school is designed to fit people into certain slots. School is circle-square, circle-square, they are just trying to plug you into those things. Every now and then a triangle will get through but a lot of us are squircles, polyhedrons, things they don't even have names for. They were just trying to get us through the system. For a lot of jobs, there's a clear path. Neurosurgeons -- there's a clear path. You're going to do medical school. To be a writer, they're like, "There's some introduction to writing classes at the university." They are trying to prepare you to get a job and support yourself. I understand their mandate but I think education needs to be overhauled.
What makes Debris special to you?
There's a lot going into this album, like maybe there's a move in dance that you've wanted to master. You see yourself in your mind's eye doing it, executing it perfectly the way you wanted to, but you're still not there. To me, this is the album where the thing I wanted to execute, I did. It came out exactly the way I wanted it to, so for me it's a landmark.
Why did you pick "For Many" as the first video?
I felt it had urgency. I get a lot of people sending me e-mails saying, "I get bullied because of the way I look." There's a lot of questions around body image that get asked to me and I'm not an authority on this, but I've dealt with this my entire life. I didn't go to school for it. It's not something I'm practiced in but I can tell you what I think. Maybe it's the most helpful piece on the album.
You've lent your voice to try to make the world a better place politically and that can be controversial. How do you handle criticism?
That's one of the things about having been bullied, I guess, I have a thicker skin than a lot of other people. Anyone who's going to criticize me based on anything other than what I've written and those are the bulk of criticisms that I get, judging me as a person not based on what I've actually presented I dismiss summarily. I'm like, "You don't even know me. You have no idea who I am." Stuff that's more critical of what I'm saying, I can totally deal with. I say, "I can see that you and I stand apart on this issue, and that's okay because I believe that's the country that we live in, that we are allowed to voice our opinions. Just as I have voiced my opinion, you have voiced your opinion and I can respect you from where I'm standing."
What have you learned recovering from your accident?
It taught me to slow down. I create something and like to get it out right away because I'm excited about it. It's taught me to ask, "Are you as happy as you are going to be with this? Is this the best thing you can put forward? Is this your maximum effort?" In that sense, it's been beneficial. It makes you really look where you are going. Because of it I have a broadened scope of what I want my life to be.
What makes a good man in your opinion? What do you aspire to?
One of the main things is to stop talking over people. I know men have a tendency to do that in a lot of business circumstances. From what I've seen, even at festivals, women get talked over a lot or their idea is not considered fairly. A lot of it is stepping back and recognizing that you've had your chance to speak for 2,000 years. 2,000 years of unchecked prosperity isn't enough for you? That's a problem. I try to sit back and listen more.