When defining poet Shane Koyczan, you might mention his performance at the Vancouver Olympics opening ceremonies. But he is more than a Penticton, B.C.-based spoken-word superstar. You might say what defines him is something as simple as his childhood. More than just hockey and fishing, in the true north of Yellowknife it was a childhood of being bullied. His new work When I Was a Kid, which has its world premiere this week in Vancouver, tells the story of those rocky but - surprise - also pleasing years. With Koyczan's first-rate track record, it promises to be an experiment going right - and not for a change.
How has your life changed since the Olympics? Or has it?
I don't know if it necessarily has; I'm still on the road as much as I have been. I'm still doing what I'm doing.
Are you recognized on the street?
Absolutely. People are like "Hey, you're that guy." All of a sudden I've become "that guy."
Do you think at some point you might write about your Olympic experience?
I don't think so. I think I just need to let it be what it was and move on from there. The Olympics itself is not really something I can condone; it's not something that I can really get behind politically. It was amazing to be included in the opening ceremonies, and that gave me a platform to elevate spoken word in Canada to another level, which was great. But the Olympics itself I don't think was necessarily good for B.C.
Your new work is called When I Was a Kid. What was life like for you as a kid?
I got bullied a lot when I was a kid, and because of that I thought for the most part that I didn't really have a childhood - I had to grow up so quick and there was no real enjoyment in that for me. And it hasn't been until recently that I've been looking back. When something's painful, you just avoid it. Why bother dredging up the past if it's nothing but bad stuff? But in the last little while I've actually been looking back on my childhood and finding what I'm starting to call my ice-cream moments, moments of joyfulness - and realizing that I did have a childhood. As much as I spent most of it dodging pitfalls, there were moments in between that were extremely lovely.
How did you remember those moments? Did you keep a journal?
My grandmother never really throws anything away, and one day she said, "Oh, I found all of your diaries." I was like "I don't write in diaries. Come on, I'm a man. I keep journals." But going through all those and reading about some of the experiences that I had, you could tell that I was so serious; I thought I was doing something so important. And it was awful writing. But I have to forgive myself, because I was that angsty kid. And none of it was necessarily poetry; it was just my thoughts poured out on paper.
Did you remember a lot of the things that you'd written about or did these incidents come back to you as you were reading about them?
Some of them came back really sharply; others I still can't remember. But that's what kind of inspired the show: Here's a huge chunk of your past that you seem to have forgotten about. And I finally realized it's okay to look back on my life, because while I had problems, while there were some extremely dark chapters, there were also those moments of levity and brilliance. It was like walking through your childhood. Think of your childhood as a neighbourhood and it's just covered with rain puddles and there are those moments in between of dry land. That's kind of the way I look at it.
Do you ever hear from the kids who bullied you now that you're a star?
On occasion I do, and it's funny that a lot of them tend to act like nothing happened, like it wasn't any big thing, and that we were just kind of friends and I should have taken it as a joke. Which is really tough, because I have to tell them no, I remember exactly what you did to me and it wasn't funny and it wasn't a joke and it was very mean-spirited and I remember your intention was to hurt me. I've gone back to Yellowknife and I've done shows there, and they come out to shows and they want to hang out afterwards. I'm like, are you kidding me? You must be joking. But then there are others that come forward and say, look, I'm really, really sorry that I put you through all that stuff. And I think that takes a lot of courage on their part.
Are you able to forgive them?
Oh, absolutely. What I can't forgive is people who pretend that nothing happened. I just think that's so wrong. It hurts me to have to even remind them, but I can't let them forget.
Have you seen that YouTube video where the Australian kid is being bullied and then he turns around and attacks his bully?
It really rang a bell for me. I remember being in that situation, so it really took me back. He's not the first kid to have had that reaction; I did the exact same thing. There comes a point where you have to. Because enough is enough. You can't take it any more. It comes to a point where you think, if I don't do something, if I just stay here and do nothing, this will happen to me my entire life. And you just break, you crack. The reaction looks chemical and it looks nasty, but at the same time it feels triumphant. And I'm so glad that somebody caught it on video. Because as horrifying as it is, it's also quite beautiful to see someone take control of their life in that way.
When I Was a Kid has its world premiere at The Cultch in Vancouver on Thursday and runs until Saturday ( thecultch.com).
This interview has been condensed and edited.