Childhood bullying. A first kiss. Painful nicknames. B.C. slam poet Shane Koyczan shared life’s nasty jabs and quiet tenderness at last week’s sold-out Spoken World event in Vancouver, BC. The gentle wordster, best known for his rousing poem about the essence of Canadians at the opening ceremonies for the 2010 Winter Olympics, recited heartfelt poetry as if confessing intimacies in a cafe tete-a-tete, not facing an audience at Granville Island’s Performance Works.
Whether talking informally onstage to the 300 guests or reciting words from one of his youthful journals, Shane gave the bumps and beauty of his life a courageous tribute. This man peels back his soul and feels. Even without his untucked brown shirt, jeans, black cap and broad arm gestures, any listener could quickly see and hear that Shane was no slick, surface showman. He described a lover’s thighs and body softness with such fond detail and devotion that you knew he’d easily get an A for sensual attentiveness.
Shane still sounded hurt from a lover’s betrayal but crafted his angst into a clever, revenge-fuelled haiku called Herpes. Overall, he celebrated a pithy spirit, not self-pity. A highlight was his moving poem about sharing a hospital room for five days with a nine-year-old boy, a cancer patient. When he asked the boy if he was scared, the kid replied: “Fuck, yeah” and then added: “But don’t tell my dad.” Shane’s tears in reciting this poem didn’t seem like the appear-on-demand kind.
It was heartening that during the sports glitz of the Olympics and his recent global performance, Shane appeared without fanfare or any mention of his poetic feat at the opening ceremonies. Percussionist Sal Ferraras and his jazz band Poetic Licence added great spontaneous riffs and accents to Shane’s words and those of the evening’s three other performance artists.
Ivan E. Coyote, a Vancouver author and screenwriter, was another standout with her touching story about falling in love with a beautiful, smart woman ten years younger. Although smitten at first sight, Ivan initially feared their age gap was too vast and she didn’t want to be a “pussy crook.” It took five years before the two became a couple.
Ivan described a car ride filled with slam poets en route to Surrey for a public reading. When one encouraged her to read her love poem, Ivan was incredulous. She figured that conservative Surrey, whose school district has banned books about same-sex unions,was not the place for an articulate dyke with a tattooed bicep, who feels at home in jeans and a motorcycle-emblemed black T-shirt, to profess her passion for a woman.
I found the work of the other two poets, Skeena Reece and California resident Ariana Waynes, less honed and rooted more in reactive emotion than skilful, thoughtful summary of experience . Skeena opened the evening, pulling her pony tail out and letting her hair and anger fly. Her throaty-voiced singing and gutteral cries were a compelling strength of raw power and direct-action motivation.
I enjoyed the spirited language of her poem Vulture Olympiad, which used the refrain “Chomp, chomp” to condemn many aspects of the Vancouver Olympics exploitation. Although I agreed with her sentiments, her presentation seemed more like a cheerleading rant than an inspirational call to action.
Her line “I want to love Canadians but they make it hard for us” epitomized her rebuke of this nation’s poor treatment of First Nations people and the city of Vancouver’s disregard of those on the Downtown Eastside. However, I’d still prefer to hear a poem that seeks solutions, evoking an alignment of shared values and social outcomes, than one that sustains race-based duality and divisions.
Ariana Waynes, the last poet of the evening, introduced herself as “bisexual polyamorous.” Enough said. She tossed off brash lines of impersonal coupling, flouting her diverse repertoire of sexual conquests. Seemingly preferring quantity to intimacy, she spoke flippantly of rape and asked: “Who hasn’t been abused?” She seemed exultant over, and empowered by, her many sweaty and sultry encounters, yet I couldn’t help wonder: “Where and how does love fit into this?” Her poetry seemed too skewed for shock value for my liking, her delivery too self-admiring to offer any hint of deep, universal connection.
Nevertheless, she drew out audience demographics that people rarely share at public events. She asked people to raise their hands to questions such as “Who has been in a bi-racial relationship” and “Who has been in a same-sex relationship?” A sprinkling of arms went up in both cases. For determining one’s company, this sure beat the usual age-and-income questions found on most surveys.
Hats off to Hal Wake, artistic director for the Vancouver International Writers Festival, for offering such a night of provocative poetry matched with captivating jazz. And many thanks to the guy at the ticket centre who, after telling me the show was sold out, kindly phoned me back about five minutes later and said that ten tickets were suddenly made available. What a thoughtful gesture.