"Shane Koyczan is reason I think slam poetry is one of world's greatest forms of artistic expression."
The cited semiarticulate blogger errs, I think, in linking Shane so intractably to the neo-literary
institution of the poetry slam
. He's risen to greatness within the surprisingly limited constraints of the Slam and needs some room to stretch and attain real success and popular impact - at an Unrefined
evening at the Sugar Refinery
a few months back he confided in me that having conquered the Slam, the next goal in his sights was a Governor-General's award
I couldn't help but ask - most writers I know are more concerned with merely getting published than with taking it as far as it goes (in Canada, at least)
but Shane doesn't want to waste his time doing anything halfway. He lets me know that its working title is INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER
, so eventually a publisher will have to print its title on the cover twice. Is he serious? Who cares.
What a guy!
The first thing you'll notice if you ever have the fortune to see "The" Shane (a persisting nickname for him - that he absolutely despises - which has nonetheless found great currency in the Van poetry scene, contrived by Vancouver slam-master Graham Olds - a man claiming that Shane enjoys the distinction of being the only Canadian poet today making a living off their poetry without suckling from the government teat) perform live is that there's a lot of him. He's not a small gentleman. (Don't tell him, but in a Living Closet press release I once described him as a "poetic man-mountain" 8) Once you hear him open his mouth and begin speaking, however, it all comes together - he has to be that big to contain all that anxiety, the volumes of observations, his bottomless patience and the profound capacity for empathy. An emotional martyr for our times, Shane looks around at the world around him and sees pain. Then he turns around and tells us how much we're hurting in ways we hadn't even noticed.
Let me put my maudlin metaphors aside for the moment and lay out his timeline here:
- Like several of you, I'm sure, he was born on May 22, 1975. He accomplished this terrific feat in the city of Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories where it was very cold, I'm told, in the wintertime. His experiences there would later have slight, if any, effect on his later writing... but perhaps we're just not looking deeply enough.
- As a young man, he moved to Penticton in British Columbia's lush Okanagan valley and eventually got himself some edumacation in the Creative Writing program at the Okanagan university college, where he won the school's Leonard Cohen Award for Best Song, its James Ellroy award for Best Voice and the W.B. Yeats award for Best Poem. During this period he was working at a video rental store in Penticton where he unfortunately became availed of ridiculous highfalutin' notions of making it big acting in Hollywood North.
- In 1998 he moved to Vancouver and found himself paying the rent filling the glamorous role of a service industry employee. His big break came when he wandered into the (now sadly-defunct) Vancouver Press Club one fateful Monday night and came upon the crusty and brackish Vancouver Poetry Slam society. Thinking back to a poem or two from his days in the Okanagan, he stepped on-stage and blew everyone away. Then he came back up for round 2 and did it again. He walked home with the $50 1st prize and thought to himself that he had to remember to come back this way again.
- He did come back again. And again he won, and again. This was to become somewhat of a trend in his slamming career - by some estimates Shane has placed first in some 80% of all the poetry slams he's ever participated in over the past four years. (For comparison, I've never even made it to a qualifying round in my six years of slam-dabbling 8)
- To confirm that he wasn't merely a flash-in-the-pan in Vancouver's feisty-but-insular slam circle, he also participated in and weighed in heavily at regional slam events (like the annual Salmon Slam) held in conjunction with other Pacific Northwest and West Coast slam societies. As a sample of the impact his performances leave, observe that question #15 on the NorCal slam FAQ is When is Shane from Vancouver coming back to the Bay Area? 8)
- His first appearance at the National Poetry Slam Championships was in Chicago in 1999, where this nobody from Canada - of all godforsaken places - cut through the massed ranks of carbon-copy Angry Black Poets to place 6th overall (of ~250) with a score of 55.8 (a whole 1.4 points beneath the top-ranked individual, Roger Bonair Agard).
- Not willing to be caught unawares next time around, all eyes were on him at the NPS Championships in Providence, Rhode Island, in 2000. And there they stayed, as Shane beat out the Nuyorican Cafe's Byronn Bain to place as not only the number one ranked slam poet in the
English-speaking world but to become the first non-black* male, the first non-US citizen and the youngest slammer to ever win that title.
Want a firsthand account? Video footage of him on that fateful August 12th, reciting his ultimate poem - garnering rankings of 10 from all judges present - can be viewed by following the first link at http://www.slamnation.com/slamamerica/, a performance described by Samuel Aaron Heath thusly:
And 30 seconds into Shane's second poem, a poem which I think should be titled 'Rise and Shine,' which was the most beautiful, unifying piece performed at the whole event, I saw the man next to me lean forward. So I looked over at him, and realised that with both hands, he was wiping tears from his eyes. That's the effect Shane had on his audience; on all of us.
The most poignant thing about this victory is that he'd been trapped in Vancouver mere days before the competition, unable to procure financing for his plane ticket. In a flash, his Washingtonian friends-in-poetry Tim Sanders and Buddy Wakefield zipped up and whipped up an uproarious benefit fundraiser for him at Café Deux Soleils, generating enough money through an auction to see our man on an airplane and into the annals of, well, those 15 minutes. I personally put down $40 for a commemmorative Shane lunchbox there and still carry my stuff around in it - no greatness has rubbed off into my words, but at least I've got a story to share when people ask about it.
- Needless to say, there was some considerable interest in the activities of Mr. Koyczan ( - that's COY-zan, or "M.C. Hotribs", as he tries to get people who haven't yet jammed the "The" before his name to refer to him**) at the 2001 (inter)National Poetry Slam Championships in Seattle, especially as he'd spent the year touring the world - opening for past Slam superstar Saul Williams in Copenhagen and Maya Angelou in San Francisco, among other companions and locations. But he'd been to the individual championship, done that, and was interested in something new and unprecedented. With the entire unimaginably diverse '00 VanSlam team, they sweated and rehearsed a joint repertoire such that every slam piece the team presented was a fully-distributed and shared group performance. No members of the team were eligible for competition as individuals. The judges, unaccustomed to this unusual sublimation of the slam poet's ego, were bewildered and consistently scored the Vancouver team low (to the hisses of entire unruly rooms). Despite being out of the rankings, Shane and the crew were invited by popular acclaim to perform some group pieces on the main stage on the final night of competition. (In the meantime there I was, mere minutes away, rolling back and forth with flamingweasel frantically trying to ensure that the Fremont Troll had not swallowed ideath whole. But that's a whole 'nuther story. 8)
Since it's almost 6am here, I'll cut short the long and tedious epic and just present you with a list of other pertinent Shane-trivia I hadn't managed to subtly work into the above narrative:
- Although such a thing has never been known when he performs to a home crowd, apparently he's been known to sling a guitar when touring and close a reading with an Ani Difranco tune or two. He hopes to someday work and/or tour with that righteous grrl and has been caught periodically refashioning a lyric or two of hers into his own verbal compositions.
- Other poets whose works he's been occasionally known to perform include Geoff Trenchard and Taylor Mali - in one hilarious instance, he trash-talked Taylor after orating one of Mr. Mali's trademark poems to the crowd. "You only wish you could write poems that well!"
- My parents have invited this soulful lump to a home-cooked Lipkovits family dinner. Though he sounded appreciative of the offer, he hasn't yet collected on it.
- In anticipation of "the Shane" taking the stage, DJ Dutch Boy will, every time, foreshadow what's about to hit you by putting on Isaac Hays' theme from Shaft.
- Despite his longstanding international triumphs, he still gets butterflies in his stomach when performing out to even the smallest audience. It's plain charming, I tells ya.
- Local poetess Susan Cormier ends up being the first to see and extend criticism on much of his work - she shares an apartment in sunny New Westminster with him and a couple of less-literary gentlemen.
- Shane cultivates an utterly revolting neck-beard. Strangely, he removes hair everywhere it might look appealing and permits it to remain only where it does the most to revolt his audience. Maybe he's determined that listeners are better able to focus on his words if their eyes are screwed shut from disgust.
- The rules of Slam Poetry - notably the 3:00 time limit - are slowly ruining Shane's performance. In an effort to pack as many syllables as possible into the time permitted, the speed of his diction is approaching that of an auctioneer. Lip-reading is becoming an essential skill for the dedicated fan of his live performances, as his syllables sadly blur into a wholly unintelligible lyric soup.
In addition to a couple of poems noded here (I stopped because copyright violation feels somehow unsavoury when you're doing it to a friend 8)
the man has produced two chapbooks: I'm Calling You Friend
and Help Wanted
. As well, a CD of his spoken performance has recently come out entitled perfect
. Inquiries regarding purchases are fielded at firstname.lastname@example.org
421 Ash Street,
New Westminster, BC,
Canada, V3M 3N1
Also, some MP3 recordings of the man doing what he does best can be heard in rotation at http://www.bleedingedgespokenword.com/shane_koyczan_radio.htm
. I'll close with a few more words from that Heath guy:
Someone needs to give this man a national audience. He could build a market for prime-time poetry readings on CBS. And while doing it, he could bring the country together. He reminds you of what's important, makes you wonder how you ever thought that the little things in life were ever worth worrying about, and doesn't just leave you dangling there feeling stupid, but points you back in the right direction and gives you a shove to get you started.
* Earlier I had described Shane as "white" - where his ethnic origin is, in fact, Métis. My bad.
**bus ridin' fool says my roommate's brother was friends with Shane in high school. apparently his nickname was Captain DinnerSausage.