Shane Koyczan: How To Be Hilariously Honest and Vulnerable

Picture a poet. What do you see? Do you see that English Major student sitting in a coffee shop wrapped in a scarf, scribbling in his notebook sweet musings about how green the grass is? Do you see a writer, sitting under a tree and watching as people pass by her? Or perhaps you see a slender woman dressed in all black with the matching black beret, a la An Extremely Goofy Movie (has anybody actually watched that? Because it’s fantastic.)?

When I think of a poet, I think of Shane Koyczan and his huggable warm presence on stage, inviting his audience into his soul. He is a master of storytelling through verse. For those of you who don’t know who Shane Koyczan is, let me show you a wonderful piece, a piece that he also performed for TED years ago. This is the poem and video To This Day – this made me fall in love with him and probably one of the few times that someone has brought me to tears.

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I was privileged enough (and yes, I truly call it a privilege) to see him live in Toronto this past Tuesday. This was the second time I saw him live and damn, he is good. Before going onstage, the BAM! Toronto Youth Slam Poetry group shared with us their work. Watching these youths perform their own slam poetry was amazing. Their verse and rhythm was spot on, telling a story with passion and mature subject matter. I personally loved Jaylen Stark’s piece about growing up and what it means to portray masculinity, and the Teacher’s Pet piece performed by Twoey Gray and Cassandra Myers.

Although I did enjoy the Youth Team, some of their works were missing a very important component on their poetry, something that Koyczan is a master of. It was missing the levity of a harsh situation and a personal touch. Their words hit hard, but they didn’t hit my heart. They only hit my brain. Poetry needs to scatter across my body, into my mind, into my heart, and into my soul. It needs to reach out to the audience and be heard. That’s why we write. We write to create connection. And Koyczan is a master of connecting his heart to others.

For the purposes of this article, I will be specifically referring to his poem “I Have A Complicated Relationship With My Cat” and “Heaven Or Whatver”. These pieces have a strong balance between hilarity, honesty, and vulnerability. These components are the perfect ingredients to some well crafted verse.

In “I Have A Complicated Relationsip With My Cat”, Koyczan tells the story about how much he hates his asshole cat. He hates how much the cat shows intense indifference to his presence. In fact, the cat has even gained a Napolean complex. He complains about how this jerk of a cat insists on sitting on his sandwiches when he turns his back. The cat is so insistent on denying him a sandwich that it willingly sits its furry butt on the sandwich even when the mayo is facing up! Koyczan tells us outrageously hilarious stories of his cat that only fuels his hate fire.

Where the real magic comes in is Koyczan’s impeccable ability to turn the tone at the drop of a hat. Immediately after spewing words of hate to his cat and how much he wishes it was a dog, he thanks the cat for being there for his grandmother when he is not. He opens his heart to us about how conflicted he feels about leaving her for a tour to share his poetry with the world – an opportunity he absolutely loves and appreciates, but this same love takes him away from the person he loves. He shares with us how difficult it is for him to leave his grandmother when he goes on tour, afraid of her potential lonliness, but he is comforted knowing that she is not completely alone. She has a cat with her. He’s not a great cat, but at least she’s not alone. Koyczan can’t help but feel grateful that the cat is there for his grandmother to keep her company and even take care of her while he is not there. But it’s still an asshole.

In “Heaven Or Whatever“, Koyczan shares his complicated relationship with his grandfather, a hard almost cold gentleman, but a man never afraid to showed how much he cared about his loved ones. He shares his doubts about a Heaven that his grandfather so strongly believed in. This poem is riddled with light fun stories about how his grandfather would get back at his grandmother for putting sand in his sandwich when he refused to make his own lunch for work, and how Koyczan thought his mouth fell off his face when his dentures fell out. He shares how his grandfather would pack sardines in his lunch bag as a snack while all of the other kids had fruit roll ups.

Through all of the funny stories, there is an underlying tone of regret for not saying a few things when his grandfather was still alive. Koyczan is bearing his heart to us, showing how his lack of faith may or may not have troubled and strained his relationship with his grandfather. He claimed that he “would not bend to the hypothetical/but wish now that I would have/even if it was just to ease your mind/in the belief that I could be headed/to that other place you believed in” (Koyczan 58). There is a layer of sadness etched into every line that screams “I miss you”.

All of Koyczan’s works share the quality of honesty, hilarity, and vulnerability. He has a seamless ability to bring levity without sacrificing any of the magnitude of the subject. He cuts open his chest and shines his heart into the world, sharing the significant intimate moments of his life in hopes that we will see a truth in his world. He’s not ashamed. Those are the moments that brought him here and made him into the artist and poet he is today. He is unabashedly himself on stage – just himself. He takes you on a journey through his storytelling, painting an image that demands an emotional response. So please, take a moment and let Shane Koyczan tell you a story.

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Shane Koyczan has a bunch of albums that you can buy on iTunes. I’ve been listening to “Silence Is A Song I Know All The Words To” and “Remembrance Year”. His poetry is beautifully scored with some great music. He also has a few poetry selections out, both published by Stickboy Press: “A Bruise On Light” (which I used to reference that line in “Heaven Or Whatever) and “Our Deathbeds Will Be Thirsty”. Please, I implore you, check his stuff out 🙂

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