4 Questions with: Shane Koyczan
By LA Markuson
If you don’t know the Canadian TED talk sensation, slam poet champ, and overall superhero, you can see him in action in NYC on April 8th. I had a couple questions for the man with a 50k+ Twitter following and a powerful reputation worth more than even 140 characters can describe.
Whether you are a poet, mental health advocate, educator, or just a feeling human being, you’ll get something out of his thoughtful work and responses to these questions.
LA: You deal with self esteem and bullying in some of your most renowned works — what do you do personally to keep your esteem up when the world seems cruel?
SK: Unfortunately the world is cruel more often than not. Being a target of criticism because of body type or mental health deficits doesn’t help with issues around self esteem… especially when those criticisms begin to echo through the caverns of depression. Not every day is a success story when dealing with these issues, and self esteem isn’t something you can just top up at a gas station. A lot of time can be spent attempting to build yourself back up after having been toppled over by cruel or thoughtless remarks. When those kinds of things happen my instinct is very often to retreat. It’s taken a lot of years to learn to lean on friends in those moments. A lot of people might think that sounds like an obvious answer, but it’s not easy to achieve when your trust has been shaped by betrayal or malice… it takes a lot to put your faith in people and believe that you won’t be hurt, but finding that kind of trust in people is precisely what’s made the world around me survivable. I don’t feel like I’m alone in the challenges I face if I have friends… it’s taken me a long time to learn that, and having been a social outcast growing up has caused a lot of missteps on my part in learning how to grow and care for those kinds of relationships.
LA: You’ve started lots of interesting groups like TOFU and seem to be a crucial part of a thriving poetry community — how do you build community around yourself?
SK: I find that I’m at my happiest and most creative when I’m surrounded by that same energy. Collaboration has been a large part of what’s kept me fulfilled. Learning to reach past the self importance of my own medium and work with others in theirs has been rewarding beyond any measure I would have dared to expect. I think it’s important to keep your community as broad as possible so that you’re not limiting what I call “perspective intake”. A lot of that is also what’s helped me reach farther than I would have been able to do on my own.
LA: You are a literal slam champion — what is the special element you bring to your poems to make them so much more powerful? Do you think the key lies in word choice, theme, delivery, flowers in your beard, or elsewhere?
SK: The pieces or performers who’ve always stuck out in my mind are the ones who can tap into the bravery required to be emotionally naked. I feel like those are the most honest works and that’s where I’m always trying to go with my own. NYC has no shortage of these kinds of writers… big cities can often have a cold edge about them as people work to navigate their lives through the density of all of the other lives around them… it can often feel like everyone else is in the way and you’re left trying to carve out what little space you can for yourself, but I think it also makes the poets, writers, and performers work even harder to find that connect with people on a emotional level. I feel like a lot of the work that comes out of NYC is lifted from a deeper well in a lot of cases, and that’s what I try do.
LA: What is your ultimate goal for your work? What’s your path?
SK: My goal is often about connection… to find what makes us relatable to one another. sometimes it’s humour, and other times it’s pain. We live in a world now where people are told to put their emotions aside because it interferes with productivity. Sometimes I get that sense that people are waiting for permission to be emotional. I try to make my shows a space for people to access those parts of themselves again.
LA: And a bonus question: what are your thoughts on haiku and do you ever write/read them?
SK: I think people sometimes dismiss Haiku without any regard for the skill it takes to craft something so whole, or complete, inside of such a demanding form. I enjoy Haiku.
LA: I’m glad you say so Shane, because here is a haiku for you inspired by my favorite photo of you, of course.
a warm brown hillside
suddenly through words, inspired
a beard, a blossom