Shane Koyczan loves getting e-mails from downtrodden kids who were moved by his gut-wrenching poems about brutal, unrelenting bullies. But, in a way, it's even more fulfilling when perpetrators reach out to him.
"As much as I want it to be a resource for people who are experiencing (bullying), I want it to change the minds of those who are doing it to people," Koyczan explained over the phone from his home in the Okanagan. "It's like this thing now you're starting to see in rape culture: it's the man's responsibility not to do those things, it's not the woman. It's not what she wears. I think the same is true for bullying. It's not about coddling the victim. It's about changing the minds of people who are victimizing these people."
Writing was an important outlet for Koyczan during his own difficult childhood. While he might not have been an articulate spoken word artist then, his young musings (which his grandmother safely stowed away) have provided fodder for powerful pieces, some of which have been taught in Canadian classrooms.
"It shaped who I am today," he added. "It's one of those sources of material that I've been able to draw from."
Other topics he's taken on are decidedly more adult, ranging from "longing poems" (which differ from love poems in that he's "talking about what I don't have") to politics.
Collectively, Koyczan's books of poetry and spoken word albums have earned him fans from across the globe. He became the first Canadian to win the U.S. Poetry Slam Championship in 2000, he performed for 55,000 people at the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies in Vancouver and he's opened up for big-name Canadian music acts like Feist and the Rheostatics.
But the most surreal moment in his career was performing for a sold out crowd in Denmark, his first of many overseas shows.
"That was the first time for me that I was like, 'Wow. What a strange road I've gone down. People are coming to see a poetry show in a place where English isn't the first language," he said.
Even if they weren't able to understand the content, surely they appreciated Koyczan's passionate delivery. Part of what's so interesting about the spoken word genre is how it hovers somewhere between poetry and music with its ebb and flow and expressiveness. The poems can cram in all the content of a short story, but pack the emotional punch of a song. "Starting off in poetry, I found it was a direct route to say something," Koyczan said. "Up until then I was writing short stories or first chapters to books I'd never finish. (Poems) can be really short and have so much impact, the layers can go very deep."
Though, he admitted, performing deeply personal pieces in an involved way can be both exhausting and difficult.
"It's something I struggled with for a long time," he said. "But growing up and being bullied as badly as I was, I'm not comfortable with my physical self. It's like a blind person who develops better hearing, meaning there are parts of me that tend to overcompensate. For me the overcompensation was the emotional side of it. It was like, 'Here, I'm going to show you how fragile I can be in front of you and I dare you to break me.'"
While the poems are raw and gripping on their own, Koyczan decided to push his work in a different direction by adding a musical element with help from a band called the Short Story Long.
"It was a natural progression," he said. "I've always loved music. There are shows I do solo and then shows I do with the band. To me it's like music underscored everything."
It's a balancing act to make sure the music fits with the poem's theme, but doesn't overpower the words. Koyczan enjoys the challenge though. To that end, he's currently working on a still-secretive new collaborative project with a group of different musicians. "It's still just at the beginning stages," he said.
For now, he's focusing on a tour of Western Canada where he'll perform work from his latest album, Remembrance Year, along with new poems.
"I'm always working on the next show," he said. "That's one of the beautiful things that I've learned from going to as many comedy shows as I have: they're always working on their material. For me, I'd go crazy if I wasn't writing."
See Koyczan perform Oct. 18 at Millennium Place at 8 p.m. Tickets range from $21 to $25 and they're available at artswhistler.tix.com.