Shane Koyczan: To This Day ... for the bullied and beautiful “I’ve been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself,” he says, beginning today’s talk. “That’s what we were told—stand up for yourself. But that’s hard to do if you don’t know who you are.”
Koyczan appeared on the TED2013 stage just a week after his spoken-word poem, “To This Day,” went viral as a crowd-animated video. Live onstage, mixing poetry and prose, Koyczan explains to the audience what prompted to him to write the poem, an ode to anyone who felt bullied or left out as a child, and have it animated by people around the world. Koyczan says it wasn’t just overt bullying he was reacting to — but the subtle discouragement kids receive along the path to adulthood, as they’re required to define themselves in narrower and narrower ways.
“At the same time as we were being told who we were, we were being asked, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up?’” Koyczan’s answers were: a writer, then a professional wrestler. Both ideas were shot down.
“What made my dreams so easy to dismiss?” he asks. “Granted my dreams are shy, because they’re Canadian. My dreams are self-conscious and overly apologetic—they’re standing alone at the high school dance and they’ve never been kissed. See, my dreams got called names too — silly, foolish, impossible.”
To hear more of Koyczan’s motivation, and to hear a beautiful live rendition of “To This Day,” watch this talk. For more of Koyczan’s poems, read on.
A proud Canuck, Koyczan wrote the poem “We Are More” for the Canadian Tourism Commission. He even performed it at the opening ceremonies of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics, for a television audience of more than 1 billion people. “We’re more than hockey and fishing lines/ off the rocky coast of the Maritimes/ some say what defines us/ is something as simple as please and thank you,” spits Koyczan in this poem. “But we are more than genteel or civilized/ we are an idea in the process of being realized.” See a version of the poem with visuals.
Koyczan got some help in sharing these “Instructions for a Bad Day” from a group of students at G.P. Vanier secondary school in British Columbia. They wrote the storyboard for the video, handled the cameras, did the acting and collected the props. The piece was created for Pink Shirt Day — a national day devoted to the discussion of bullying.
Here, Koyczan performs “The Crickets Have Arthritis” at Words Aloud in 2007. A heartbreaking love letter to his 9-year-old hospital roommate, Louis, the poem begins, “It doesn’t matter why I was there, where the air is sterile and the sheets sting. It doesn’t matter that I was hooked up to this thing that buzzed and beeped every time my heart leaped like a man whose faith tells him God’s hands are big enough to catch an airplane, or a world.”
Yes, Koyczan does on occasion write love poems. Here is “More Often Than Sometimes,” in a new video produced by Amazing Factory Productions and posted just two weeks ago as part of the Giants of the Forest series. “I think of her more often than sometimes/ If she ever hears this/ I want her to know that/ Our first kiss tasted like pepper,” he says. “We loved like two games of solitaire/ Waiting to be played by one another.”
In January, during an event to mark the closing of the Waldorf Hotel in Vancouver after 63 years, Koyczan performs the poem “Remember How We Forgot.” His words are beautifully backed, as they were on the TED stage, by violinist Hannah Epperson. “Once upon a time we were young/ our dreams hung like apples waiting to be picked and peeled,” flows Koyczan.
The words that begin the poem “Atlantis,” performed here at Words Aloud in 2007, may just get you: “Your entire body shakes when you laugh/ as if your sense was built on a fault line/ and the coast of your heart falls into the ocean of yourself/ and you’re left looking for Atlantis.”
Here, Koyczan’s poem “Educate the Heart,” created for the Dalai Lama Center. In a video about writing the poem, Koyczan stops reciting and talks boldly about how our culture values the wrong things. “Somewhere along the way we got very invested in things that don’t care about us,” says Koyczan. “Money doesn’t love you. Your car isn’t going to sit down and hold your hand if your kid is sick.”