"so we just keep bumping into one another
as if people are just buildings made of bone
who collapse every time they're made to believe
they were meant to stand alone
but you're not
some of us can love"
-- an excerpt from “Visiting Hours”, by Shane Koyczan
pages 35-39 of Visiting Hours
Shane Koyczan is the kind of person that seems to invite hyperbole when written about, so bear with me.
I did not recognize his name until I saw him perform, when I attended the second poetry reading I'd ever went to, only a day after the first. It was me and two friends in a crowded café. After about a half hour of waiting for Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long (with Dan Mangan) to actually begin, we got a little fidgety, being seventeen-year-olds unused to poetry and surrounded by caffeine. From the moment he stepped out onto the stage (if you can call the tiny platform that), our impatience was forgotten.
I can't really describe what happened then, but from the lines “And then there's you. And I want to kiss you so bad, I'd be willing to cut off my own head and just throw it towards your lips. And you'd be well within your rights to just swat it to the floor. But I'd redefine hardcore, lying there at the tips of your toes, because God knows I'd be trying to figure out some way to roll towards them. And maybe that's crossing the line. Maybe that's a little creepy. But did I mention that I like you?”, me and my friends looked at each other and were hooked. It's the kind of thing you just don't forget. That, and "Robots Need Love Too".
When it was over, I found myself unexpectedly spending money I didn't really have. I couldn't leave without taking some Koyczan poetry back with me, I knew that then. I didn't want to leave, but if I had to, I had to take some back. There was a choice between an awesome Dan Mangan t-shirt with a polar bear and a robot on it, a Dan Mangan CD, a Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long CD, and Koyczan's poetry book. I continue to regret not being able to get one of each, because Mangan and Koyczan were incredible together, and I would recommend Dan Mangan highly, but it was the Koyczan CD and book I couldn't leave without.
"Boyfriend man is so glad
your dad hates him
he's finally the dangerous man
he always wanted to be."
-- “Finally”, pg 42 of Visiting Hours
I can't seem to be able to decide which parts of Visiting Hours to quote; every poem has a different flavour to it and has a distinctive effect. So, the quotes featured in this writeup are fairly random and should not be used to judge all of Koyczan's work.
Visiting Hours, edited by Chrystalene Buhler, is a slim book: only 112 pages. It consists of 35 poems. Some of them, like “Finally”, quoted above, are only a few lines, while others unravel over pages. It was published by House of Parlance in 2005 and is Shane Koyczan's first published book, though he has produced chapbooks before it. Visiting Hours is in its third edition, and both the Guardian and the Globe and Mail listed it as a Best Book of the Year for 2005.
It is surprising, and frankly disappointing, that Visiting Hours is not a more widely recognized book; every person I have heard from that has read it, loved it. I cannot seem to find a bad review for it. Shane Koyczan has a dedicated fan base, to be sure, but he and his poetry collection definitely deserve to be more widely acknowledged.
Okay, it's obvious I am a fan, but perhaps I haven't explained why. It is one thing to say his poetry is good, it's another to admit that seeing Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long perform with Dan Mangan was, honestly, the highlight of my life. See the hyperbole I warned about? But I swear, it's true. And it's also true that one of the friends that was there that night drove me home, and we listened to the CD together. I told him that if the last poem we listened to was “People are Getting Better”, I would cry all night. So we took the longest possible way home, winding through streets and listening to poetry. Following that, and later we would accredit it to that night, me and that friend got much closer. Months later, we talk every night and have plans to move in together as soon as the possibility comes up. Perhaps it would have happened otherwise, but I can trace the beginning back to the moment after Koyczan left the café and me and by soon-to-be best friend made eye contact and saw our own awe reflected in each other's expression. Stephen Harper may have claimed that ordinary Canadians don't care about the arts, but if they can bring me closer together like that to anyone, I will continue to care.
Koyczan is a wonderfully affecting spoken-word poet, but he also translates well to paper. Some of his poems need to be spoken to be fully appreciated, and some need to be read to be fully appreciated. I think the real skill of Koyczan is in his ability to see all the pain in the world around him and put it in words, making that pain beautiful. Many of his poems are gut-wrenchingly tragic, but still beautiful. Another talent of his is to write about love and relationships like he is the first person to do so. The quote italicized above is my favourite example of this (which is from “Stop Signs”, by the way, which is on the CD, but not in Visiting Hours).
If you are a poetry fan, you better already be familiar with Shane Koyczan. But even if you aren't, please, please give Visiting Hours a shot. It's accessible and immediately engrossing. And for $20 Canadian, it's worth it just for the cover (by Matthew Bowen). At the very least, you can be the very first bad review I've heard.
what I said was
I'll miss you
what I meant to say was
I love you
what I wanted to say was
that I meant what I said"
-- an excerpt from “Pulse”, by Shane Koyczan
pages 19-23 of Visiting Hours