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Politics to poetry

Laura Power
Northern News Services
Published Friday, August 10, 2007

YELLOWKNIFE - It is a rare success story that poet Shane Koyczan is living.

Born in Yellowknife, he started out too shy to communicate comfortably with his peers, but is now one of Canada's top spoken word artists.

NNSL Photo/Graphic

Shane Koyczan performs at Folk on the Rocks last month. His group Tons of Fun University (TOFU) was a crowd pleaser. - Adam Johnson/NNSL photo

"I was always socially awkward so I didn't talk to people a lot," he said.

When he became a little more social in his school days, he said he still wasn't comfortable in conversation.

He would write speeches to answer everyday questions, which eventually paid off.

"The more I did it the more comfortable I became socially, so in a lot of ways spoken word saved my life," he said. "I'm sure if I wasn't doing poetry I'd probably be a toll booth operator or something. Or a politician."

It wasn't always Koyczan's dream to have his voice heard through his poetry. His original plan was to leave a footprint in the field of politics.

"I was convinced that I was going to go into politics and make a difference," he said, but his political science professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver told him he was in the wrong program.

Taking the nudge, Koyczan joined the English literature students, where he found his place.

He started reading at a local café called the Hog's Breath, and eventually was entering and winning competitions both nationally and internationally.

Among his notable wins was his success in the U.S. National Poetry Slam in 2000. Not only was he the first non-American to come out on top in the Individual Championship, but he said he was also the youngest person to win at that point.

It was in San Francisco that he met Mike McGee, now one of the three members of Tons of Fun University (TOFU). He said at first, the two had trouble getting along.

"Two funny fat guys in the same vicinity was kind of like two suns colliding," he said.

Eventually, the two found common ground and, along with C.R. Avery, began their TOFU wordplay.

The group played in Koyczan's hometown for the first time this summer when they came to Yellowknife for Folk on the Rocks. Koyczan, who has travelled to places as far as Australia, New Zealand and various parts of Europe with his work, was happy to come back to the place he was born.

Of all his travels, he said he encounters the most trouble at the Canada/U.S. border.

He said when filling out the customs form, he began ticking "business" as his reason for travelling rather than "pleasure." When they ask what his business is, and he tells them "poetry."

"Without fail, four out of five times they say 'poetry, like chicken?'"

Along with his solo career and his work with TOFU, Koyczan also puts his talent to use with the group Shane Koyczan and the Short Story Long.

"If you're going to be a poet for a living you're going to have to have your hand in a lot of different pies... which is probably why I have a weight problem," he joked.

It didn't take long before he realized that his success no longer depended on him living in a big city.

He now works from his new home in the Okanagan Valley. Though he said pursuing poetry as a career was a risky move for him, he now finds himself in a position where he is able to inspire and influence people by doing what he loves.

"It's just getting bigger and bigger and better and better for me," he said.