Canadian poet Shane Koyczan – internet sensation and TED speaker emeritus – graciously took some time out of his busy touring schedule to answer a few of our questions. You can catch him in Tulsa on Wednesday, Oct. 9 at the University of Tulsa’s Lorton Performance Center. The night is hosted by Ok, So Tulsa. Tickets available here.
You’re coming to speak at my university soon – the University of Tulsa – and I've got to ask, what do the minutes and hours before a spoken word performance look like for Shane Koyczan? Lots of rehearsing and mastering mannerisms? Or, something more akin to meditation?
It’s a little bit of all of that. The anxiety tends to peak out 20 minutes before the show. It’s easy to get nervous because you’re kind of opening a vein on stage. You’re sharing intensely personal feelings and experiences. I don’t think that kind of thing ever gets easy.
You read your piece "We Are More" at the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver – I think I was watching at the time, before I had any real grasp on what poetry was. In January you told The Cornwall Seeker that "a lot happened" regarding the Olympics, and that it’s too much to sum up. So, I don’t expect a summary here, but I wonder if that was an anxiety peak for you – I can’t imagine the feelings leading up to a performance not just before a stadium of thousands, but the televisions of millions. Have the feelings before any performance since then compared?
I don’t think the size of an audience changes much of how I approach a show. It was a big moment and I was certainly stressed, but I don’t think I can measure it that way. I’ve been more nervous having my grandma at a show.
You're on tour right now, and, beyond the occasional book tour, it’s not common for poets to go on tour. Do you have a tour bus and an entire entourage? Do you try to soak up the sights in each city you pass through?
I usually engage with people on socials and have had some fantastic chance encounters from people who’ve invited me on tours of their respective towns. I feel like a tour bus might be a bit overkill for one poet and a microphone. I try to keep my footprint small and do my best to just make new friends on the road. There can be long stretches isolation, and that can definitely chip away at your psyche.
Looking through the comments of your YouTube videos – each of which has racked up many millions of views – one comes across comments that say, in one way or another, "You saved my life." What sensation do these sorts of comments give?
I’m always appreciative, but it’s rarely the positive ones that stay with you. I get very personal letters from people. People who are in pain and looking for a way out. Those letters tend to stay with you longer. Your imagination is an effective torturer when all you can do is reach back into a void and wonder if they’re okay.
I have to ask about the promotional content for your tour. One has you standing in a pile of dirt, and I’m seeing lots of posters at my university in which you’re yanking on your beard. What inspired this imagery?
Just a photo shoot I did with my friend, Karre Iverson.
What or who would you cite as the biggest influences on your work, at least nowadays? I’ve seen a quote from Amy Brown with The Lumiere Reader about you that goes, "Homer must have sounded [like this]." Do you ever find yourself returning to the "Iliad" or "Odyssey"?
I’ve always enjoyed mythology. It’s a great vehicle for moral questions. Mostly though I end up focusing on the next thing I’m writing.
What are you reading or watching right now?
"Weight" by Jeanette Winterson.