Monday, April 01, 2013



This morning I went downstairs to put in a load of laundry and stopped by my studio where I keep the bookshelves that house my collection of poetry books, among other things. I grabbed a David McFadden, an Al Purdy and Shane Koyczan’s Stickboy, his 2008 somewhat (?) (!) autobiographical novel about bullying, written in verse, which I got over a year ago but hadn’t gotten around to reading.

I started it about two hours ago. I finished it a few minutes ago. There is something about what that man does with words that is…I’m searching for the right words here and they won’t quite come. Mind-boggling? Yes.  Deceptively simple? That, too. Guilt-inducing? Yep. One thing’s for sure; just as he keeps me listening when I attend one of his shows, he kept me reading today, right to the end.

I can only tell you how it felt, he begins, and by God, the reader is going to feel it, too. The punches. The knees to groin. The taunting. The laughter. And eventually, the fighting back. The cutting—something I’ve never had to deal with and never really understood before, but somehow, reading this book, I get why someone would do it. How scary is that? 

The story begins when the protagonist is ten, ends 173 pages later when he’s in his teens and we’re brought full circle with,

            But, it’s like I said.

            I can only tell you how it felt.

It’s a powerful look at the act—the art—of bullying. How the bullied becomes the bully and the circle goes round and round. I defy anyone to read this without cringing. Without remembering the times someone hurt you, physically or emotionally, and of the times you either participated in some sort of bullying yourself, or chose to remain silent while it was going on in front of you. I know that I, the kid in Junior High who was known as “Cesspool” to one nasty bunch of kids (at least one of whom, I found out much later, had a pretty shitty home life), can put up my hand to having been present on both sides of the bullying issue. I believe it’s something that we, as humans, have to be vigilant about. It’s such an easy thing to fall into, that heady, if misguided, feeling of power where really there is none. Round and round.

There’s a savage beauty to some of the lines. In one section Koyczan talks about name calling, and ends with:
            (And here,
            a small aside,
            to the person who said “Names Will Never Hurt You.”

            FUCK YOU FOREVER!!!)

The poet in me sometimes wanted to tighten Stickboy up a little. A poet friend with much more experience than I abhors similes, and they abound in Koyczan’s work. Yes, they can be effective, but all too often just eliminating the words “like” and “as if” would allow the lines to sing out more than they do. And sometimes similes get in the way of narrative. The story is good enough that it doesn’t bear interrupting. An example:

            I could feel the sinew around his bones strain,
            like a yoga master finally conceding
            that there are some ways
            our bodies are not meant to bend.
            I felt his arm on the verge of cracking,
            like a man with diminished capacity
            being grilled into a confession
            for a murder he had nothing to do with.

This is three-quarters of the way through the book. The protagonist is in a new school and has finally reacted to a bully by hitting him. Frankly, it’s hard not to cheer when this happens, but rather than enhancing it the similes take me out of the story. Bear in mind, this was published five years ago, and Koyczan's work has matured. Reading through the text of To This Day, I notice a lot less “likes” and “as ifs”. 

This isn’t the first time I’ve written about Shane Koyczan. I saw him at a house concert in Nelson in 2006 and it was memorable. 
As I mentioned in that post, the main reason I went to that concert in the first place was because Thistledowne was opening for him and my son, Jesse Lee, was in that trio. Now, half-a-dozen years later, Jesse plays stand-up bass in the Short Story Long. He joined the band after the viral vid was recorded, so that’s not him on the recording, but if you’ve seen the band in the last year, he’s that tall, skinny guy with the mop of hair and the big black bass.

It’s been interesting watching Koyczan’s career take off. When I saw him that first time he was getting to be known. He became something of a household word after the opening ceremonies at the Winter Olympics in 2010 in Vancouver where he delivered We Are More, his salute to all things Canadian. 

Recently, a whole new conversation about bullying has begun, as if it was something new. Even Parliament Hill got involved (and if that isn't a gathering of bullies you tell me what is!), debating and then defeating a private member's bill that called for a national anti-bullying strategy. Shane Koyczan himself is partly responsible for this renewed interest by way of his tour de force anti-bullying poem To This Day that he performs with his band, the Short Story Long. If you’re not already one of the over seven million people who have viewed this video you can watch it hereHe also delivered it as a TED talk.

As heavy as the material in this book is, there are some very funny bits. At one point, the boy protagonist is reminiscing about going for a drive with his grandparents and his grandmother asks his grandfather what the German drinking song that he's playing is about. Turns out, it’s a song about a whore, and the boy doesn’t know what that means, so first chance he gets he looks it up, which leads to him looking up various other related words, none of which help with his understanding of the song.

            Toward the end of my research, I was convinced
            that a whore was
            a man of no fixed occupation, who was
            indiscriminate when it came to mingling,
            and used his talents in a shameful manner
               (and usually for money.)


            You can imagine my surprise
            the day my music teacher told us he was leaving
            to pursue a different path.

            Looking back,
            I probably should have waited until the end of class
            to ask if he was planning to become a whore.

At the end he muses:

            The story of our lives unfolds only once,
            and each time a page is turned,
            we force ourselves into knowing
            that we can never edit or rewrite
            our past.

            We move closer and closer to an ending.
            And we can only hope that when we read ourselves,
            the story will unfold lucidly enough
            to teach us something.

So begins my foray into the world of poetry for this year’s National Poetry Month. Don’t expect all my posts to be this long, but I’ve been thinking about the issue of bullying for some time and knew I wanted to write about it. Apparently, today is the day.

The laundry! I forgot all about it! Poetry will do that to you.


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