One night, Shane Koyczan delivered a message to the world. By the next morning, more than 2,000 people had jammed his e-mail inbox in response. The day after performing We Are More at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics, the Canadian spoken word poet had heard from people around the globe enthralled by his work and curious about a brand of poetry rarely, if ever, seen on an international stage.
"I think it's definitely exposed a lot of people to the art form," says Koyczan, who is still in Vancouver. "I've gotten a lot of e-mails from a younger generation saying, 'You've really inspired me to try this art form out.'"
Koyczan, 33, has spent the last eight years working as a spoken word poet, and several years before honing his skills at slam poetry events. But the opening ceremonies was by far the largest stage given to his art form. Slam and spoken word, two offshoots of what's known as performance poetry, has been slowly growing in popularity. But organizers of these events say Koyczan's performance was slam and spoken word's coming out party to the world.
"It was definitely a huge moment," says Susan B.A. Somers-Willitt, a slam poet and author of The Cultural Politics of Slam Poetry. "Having a poet perform at such a high profile event such as the Olympic opening ceremonies really means that slam poetry and spoken word poetry has come of age."
Like spoken word, slam, which sees poets verbally sparring on stage, has remained on the cultural fringes since it emerged in the mid-1980s because it has usually been defined by the cringe-inducing performances of amateurs whose work is just that.
"You go to a slam on any given night and there are going to be performances that are a little lacklustre. But that's the beauty of it, because anybody can get up and do it," Koyczan says.
Koyczan's piece from the opening ceremonies is a meditation on what it means to be Canadian. It was performance poetry at its best - serious, sly, passionate, playful and lacking the self-righteous pretensions that have often marred the form.
"It's been judged according to the worst it can produce," says Chris Gilpin, a director-at-large of Vancouver Poetry House, an organization dedicated to advancing poetry in the city.
"Spoken word poetry has always had to struggle for acceptance amongst other art forms, and Shane put in on par with every other art form," Gilpin says. The Olympic performance will help in "getting spoken word festivals up and running and getting audiences to those festivals."
Although still mostly below the cultural radar, spoken word and slam are starting to enjoy more widespread success, with festivals and events sprouting up across the country.
"All major events have seen a growth in popularity," says David Silverberg, artistic director of the Toronto Poetry Project, a group that runs a monthly poetry slam that attracts more than 150 people at a time. "The crowd is energetic, they're rowdy, they know this is going to be a mix of various genres under the umbrella of spoken word, ranging from monologues to a cappella raps to prose poems."
The Vancouver Poetry Slam, which began in 1996, has grown so popular it is now held once a week instead of once a month.
In April 2011, Vancouver Poetry House will host the first Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Championship, an event that will see slam poets from across the country fight for national glory. Koyczan's Olympic performance is expected to draw large crowds to the event, Gilpin says.
But some in the slam community are ambivalent about its move into the mainstream, including Marc Kelly Smith, who founded slam in Chicago in the 1980s.
"By design we've kept it kind of grassroots," Smith says. "I've fought against a lot the people who've said, 'Oh, you've got to get this exposure.'"
Past attempts to popularize slam and spoken word, most notably Russell Simmons Presents Def Poetry, an HBO television series that debuted in 2002, bother many slam and spoken word artists.
"Seeing something that's so highly produced and so widely mainstream would probably draw some criticism from some people in the slam community," Somers-Willitt says. But Koyczan's performance announces to the world "there is a place at this global table for poetry, and I think that's really important."
Smith concedes Koyczan's performance was "a good thing" for slam and spoken word poetry because it helps artists explain the art form.
"That's what they'll say," Smith says. "'Didn't you see the guy on the Olympics?'"