I remember the voice coming out of my kitchen radio sometime back in 2003 or 04 – before I moved to the Sunshine Coast – when I still lived above Turks, on the Drive. It caught me, that voice and the poetry it was speaking, and I sat still to listen until he was done. I wrote down his name so I could look him up further and a few days later realized that the voice and the poems belonged to a man who lived up Charles Street from me and drank coffee at the shop beneath my apartment. The small world of Canadian arts, the CBC and the Drive – made perfect sense to me.
A few months ago I saw that this voice – which belongs to Shane Koyczan – was performing with his band Short Story Long at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre. And so I went with some friends and for the first time since that chance radio encounter I heard more than a snippet. This time it was two sets of spoken word set to music in a crowded theatre that was crying and laughing and stomping and sighing all at once. In the struggle of living all of these reactions are appropriate – and Shane encapsulates so much of that strain, joy and grief with a deftness very few writers of any generation possess. I cried through most of the show a little from sadness, but mostly from the relief that someone else out there understood and could articulate love and revolution in just that way.
So, being me – which is busy…. I hadn’t thought about that show for awhile and yesterday I had a bit of a moment where I was wondering if they were coming back to town anytime soon. As far as I can tell from their MySpace page (fuck MySpace is ugly) they aren’t doing any shows at the moment. But! I discovered that in January they released their CD (title: A Pretty Decent Cape in my Closet) which is available on CDBaby and also on iTunes. Lacking any impulse control I downloaded it immediately and listened to it at work. Which was a bit of a mistake, because the pieces still make me weepy and a cubicle is no place for crying. (Or perhaps it’s the most appropriate place for crying but for social convention.) If you want to hear a few tracks off it go to the ugliest site on earth and check out the streaming media at their MySpace site – and then really, go somewhere online and buy the whole album. It’s worth the $10 because it’s some of the most brilliant spoken word out there, but also because you get to support these really cool artist/musician folk who live not so far away – and who have some important things to say.
Now unfortunately, my favourite piece is not online anywhere to share – not on YouTube or MySpace or on their site – otherwise I’d link to it directly because it’s been rattling around in my head with a few other thoughts these past days, and it’s what I’m going to write about next. If you took my advice in the previous paragraph, then I would suggest you give a listen to “This is My Voice” – which is about using the pen and the stage and the words that make change to do right in the world. This was the premise of the Flying Folk Army when we started back in 1997 – to bring social issues to the dance floor – writing songs about what mattered; guerilla humour and social frenzy incorporated into all our shows whether in the labour halls or on festival stages. Unlike my role as protester, I felt heard as a performer, our words and ideas co-written and sung in 6-part harmony. Our crowds were never huge but always energetic – and often singing our words along with us. As Brian has noted recently, it’s something I miss, this particular expression of voice now that the Flying Folk has for all intents and purposes retired itself into other projects.
Last October, as I left Shane’s show, I was acutely aware of this feeling – the words from “This Is My Voice” lingering – lightly cursing myself for not writing more, for leaving music behind to do other things. For abandoning my own voice in a particular way. It’s a familiar frustration in the last two years – since being a union activist has all but taken over my life, and I increasingly have to stretch to simply maintain friendships let alone trying to manage a band, rehearsals and shows on top of that. It’s silly really, because even as I have indulged in this artistic self-pitying (cause lord knows, that’s all it is), my union activity has given me a whole different stage to work from – access to thousands of people to talk to, with a message of struggle to take into even the most conservative workplaces. And here I have learned to speak with a different voice – to a brand new audience.
The other night at the WISE, someone asked me why a radical was running for union office again. Specifically he asked, “what can you do as a union leader that you can’t do as an activist?” And I had to think about that. Because I know that the psychological motivations of being a union leader are not different than any other type of performer. But that wasn’t the answer. And I thought instead about these last few months of talking to our members about their jobs and their kids and how work should be valued, and how the system isn’t fair. I thought about the talk a couple months ago where I literally stamped my feet and shook my fist about injustices in the workplace to the applause of a bunch of women clerical workers who know I am them if only a little bit braver. And so I said, “I’m a union leader because I get to go to where people are at and talk to them about work. Is it radical? I’m not sure you would think so – but in a world that tells us we aren’t worth anything because we work and don’t own, that pushes consumption as a paltry substitute for class power, that tells people their voice doesn’t count unless they vote for a party that doesn’t represent them anyways – yeah, I think it might be.”
It’s not the revolution, I know. But neither was the Flying Folk or the APEC protests. It’s one piece like many pieces and if we’re going to find our common voice and shout it out together – then we’ve got to be ready – and that’s not just those of us in East Vancouver. And as much as I want to be a performer and a poet, I am *so* much more suited to what I’m doing right now. Honestly. I never question whether I should be up there – giving voice to the frustrations of the many – hoping one day that we’ll be talking something much more radical than the picket line. The traditions we come from are many – artistic, political, social – and I’m so damned glad that we’ve got these intersections that bring us back together.