Shane Koyczan: from garbage man to performance poet
Shane Koyczan is an unlikely poet. ‘I thought I was going to be a wrestler,’ the 35 year old Canadian grins. ‘I had my whole idiotic stick planned out. My name was going to be the garbage man, my finishing move was going to be the trash compacter. Then somebody stole my whole idea and I thought, what do I do?’
The self-confessed nerd is aware of the frequent dismissal of poetry as elite. Bouncing onto the stage at the start of his Edinburgh festival fringe show, 'Talk Rocker', he looks out at the apprehensive audience and says, ‘I know you’re all thinking, ‘Fuck, I’m stuck in a poetry reading.’’ However, dizzyingly fast and with the emotional highs and lows of a roller coaster, Shane’s show has a very different atmosphere from the more traditional (although equally enjoyable) reading that I attend the following day.
This is partly because all of the poems Shane performs have an autobiographical edge, one which is frequently heart-wrenching but just as often uplifting. ‘I take my experiences and ask myself what I took from them,’ the winner of the US slam poetry championship explains. ‘I feel a level of comfort being able to tell my story to a group of strangers rather than one on one. I always felt a vague comfort with being emotionally nude rather than physically nude. The way I grew up, you didn’t want to take your shirt off in front of a bunch of guys who were going to spin towels and whip your ass with it. So I sort of overcompensated with the emotional side. Performance became the next logical step.’
Performance poetry is great, he continues, because there’s a level of connection that lets the audience know that they’re in a safe space. You don’t get this in a cinema for example, where no one wants to cry sitting next to a stranger. He laughs, ‘I can’t help it on planes. I can watch the worst romantic comedy and it doesn’t matter, I’ll just start bawling. I don’t know what it is – there’s something about altitude.’
Most of us get into poetry at a point when we develop crushes on particular poems and manage to shake off the embarrassing writing exercises forced on us at school. Shane came to writing a very different way. ‘I didn’t have a lot of social skills growing up. I was put in a drama programme at school and I thought my life was over. However, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because it taught me how to be social. That’s when people started talking to me and I realised I didn’t know how to talk to people. People would ask me ‘how’s it going?’ which is a very benign question – but at the time for me it was huge! So I would go home and write and prepare these little speeches to give to people. I’d say things like, ‘Jesus, the best food in the world because it’s so diverse’. I thought people would leave me alone because they would think I was weird and freaky. It backfired because people told each other, 'You have to talk to Shane, he says the weirdest things!' That was how the writing started.’
After a lot of first chapters of overly dramatic and romantic novels, his writing teacher at college suggested that he should try to write a poem, so as get the feel of starting and finishing a project. Everything’s snowballed from there, with Shane now moving onto larger projects such as screen writing – including working on the latest Mad Max movie, now being filmed in Namibia. As well as writing, he tours and performs, both in English speaking countries and across Europe. ‘I’ve been to Dusseldorf in Germany and to Copenhagen’s Christiania. I was amazed that an English speaking poetry show sold out there! It’s a cool place, really interesting. I was so curious about how the audience knew all these pop references. I asked someone and he told me, ‘watch the Simpsons’.’
After a certain amount of nervous giggling in the audience at first, Shane slowly but surely wins his listeners over. This isn’t entirely surprising – the festival crowd is a lot more amicable than some audiences he’s had to deal with. ‘I had a show in Calgary in Canada once – it’s a really big ice hockey town. It was one of my first paid gigs when I was getting started up. They put me on in the pub during happy hour, while the Calgary flames, the local hockey team, were in the play offs in the national league. They had to turn the sound down so that I could read poetry – people were just going crazy! I ended up winning them over for the last half hour or so, but it was the hardest thing.’
Performing his life story on the stage as he does, you could imagine that this is a man who doesn’t many secrets. Does he have a secret talent? There is a long pause. ‘I don’t think it’d be suitable for publication.’
Shane is performing Talk Rocker at 7.30 every day until 27 August in Underbelly's Ermintrude.