Performance poet Koyczan hits the road

Getting out on the road is what Shane Koyczan needs.

Getting out of the Okanagan.

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Getting away from old words like his street name and the now silent conversations between himself and his adored grandmother.

They lived together. They were family, rock and oasis. One strong rope in a frayed tangle of familial relations.

And since her recent passing, his thoughts have descended into his heart where they rattle around like the tail of a snake he can't charm and isn't sure he even wants to anymore.

Could venom be any worse than his grievous disconnection?

He shot an entire short-film series in hometown Penticton and felt no triumph or pride in the creation, only numb.

The road north has lesson, distraction, other substances for the heart that might displace the grief also northward back to his mind where he can make of it what he makes of all the enormous emotional baggage he's had to carry in a life all too rich with pain.

"I've been kind of attuning myself inside of that (grief)," Koyczan said. "You can't really write while you're in it. You have to process all of it first. It's like when you're making a cake, you need all the flour and the sugar, all those ingredients need to be parsed out before you can really make anything creative. Often it is a giant mess. And right now I really feel like I'm in that place of looking at the recipe in my hand and wondering what I have to go get from the store. I feel lost. It's a tangle of emotions from anger to love to fear to guilt to whatever you go through."

If anyone knows how to untangle a chaos of emotional turbulance, it is Canada's pinnacle performance poet, our national spoken word laureate, the wordsmith to whom Gord Downie tipped his hat.

Koyczan is an Olympian of Canadian literature, and that was made literal at the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Vancouver Games when more than 13-million people saw him deliver his passionate ode to the Canadian experiment entitled We Are More.

With all the pop culture celebrities available to the organizers - they had Bryan Adams, Donald Sutherland, Wayne Gretzky, Nelly Furtado and more - you'd perhaps not believe they would even think to include spoken poetry.

"I didn't either," he admitted.

"When I was first approached to do the Olympics, my thought was, they want me to be outside reading this poem while people are walking into the building. I did not expect them to make me the peanut butter in the kd lang / Sarah McLauchlan sandwich. A borderline homeless poet gets to do the Olympics between those two megastars. It was such a weird experience."

He has now been called upon to do TED Talks, been the subject of documentaries, he's a YouTube darling, he's in the band The Short Story Long, he has collaborated with acts like We Are The City and Dan Mangan, he created the graphic novel Silence Is A Song I Know All The Words To, and of course he has a growing library of original poetry titles.

"I have eight books out, and a ton of poems that I've never read on a stage," he said.

"When I sit down to write, I don't consciously think 'oh, this is a piece I'll perform.' If it works out that way, great."

His book Stickboy got the attention of James Wright, general director of Vancouver Opera. His creative team of director Rachel Peake, composer Neil Weisensel and conductor Leslie Dala former artistic director with the Prince George Symphony Orchestra) approached Koyczan about turning the school bullying commentary into a modern Canadian opera.

There was only one catch. They wanted Koyczan to write the libretto.

"The extent of my knowledge of opera was Elmer Fudd singing Kill Da Wabbit," he laughed, remembering that uncomfortable conversation.

"It's a very different kind of writing. Spoken word poetry, part of the reason I do it, is I love language. With opera, everything you write, everything that comes out of the singers' mouths, has to be very vowelly, and it all has to be used to propel the story. There wasn't a lot of room for the poetry in the language, and the mathematrics of it as well as you try to fit the phrasing of the music. It was a very challenging experience. With poetry, I have all my vocabulary and my full lexicon at my disposal, whereas with opera, I had to be really choosy about which words would sound good when sung, would propel the story, so many other considerations."

But once done, he got to see his life, through his own words, turned back onto himself through the interpretations of others (the story's grandmother was portrayed by Megan Latham and the protagonist modelled on his own experiences was portrayed by Sunny Shams), and a foreign art form.

Koyczan has been to Prince George before. The last time was at Artspace performing with Mangan. This time he's on his own, driving for emotional relief and the stage of the Prince George Playhouse.

He'll be live in performance Friday starting at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are on sale now online at the Central Interior Tickets website while supplies last.

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