War Museum

Posted: August 6, 2015 in Uncategorized

So… the War Museum.

I am not a fan, generally. I have never been and never want to go, but I accept that as my personal stance and don’t expect others to concur.

Basically, to me it feels like a glorification of war. War is something that happens, but we SHOULD be ashamed of it. It is a last resort when all else fails.

It is a failure. (I am not claiming it is never necessary, but the fact that it becomes necessary is a sign that we – as a human race – have failed.)

I have been told that there are places in the museum where it IS possible to show the horrors of war and that it can be educational. I do not doubt that, but I have not seen it because I choose not to go there.

Now, to my main point, every day I ride past the museum on the bus and for the past while that has been a very large building poster advertising their current exhibit: Death & Glory. It is an exhibition about Gladiators.

Right off, when people argue that the museum is NOT a big glorification of war, maybe putting up a huge sign advertising DEATH & GLORY is not the best way to prove that point.

Mostly though, I object to an exhibit about GLADIATORS.



This is not about protecting people or doing what is right or the high cost of stepping up etc.

This is about killing people. Nothing else. End of story.

Again, I have not been inside, and I won’t. I am just saying that it is hard to believe the counter-arguments when THIS is how the museum presents itself.

Over the last couple of slams (both CPC Summer Slams), where I hosted, I realized something…

I don’t want to slam anymore.

I am not turning my back on slam or spoken word. I am still very involved (I am the National Slam Master for Spoken Word Canada and the Slam Master for Capital Slam), and the ‘sport’ still fascinates me nearly as much as the art.

But I just don’t want to compete.

At both of the last two shows, as well as hosting, I dropped a few poems each night. I acted as an impromptu Open Mic and the Sac Poet and I really enjoyed that. I still love writing and sharing and performing.

I want something to be VERY CLEAR, I am not ‘announcing my retirement’ from slam. Honestly, I have always found that to come across as somewhat arrogant… as if I were somehow ‘better’ than a slammer now.

That isn’t the case. At all.

Besides, this isn’t a ‘never again’ screed. Just because I don’t want to slam now doesn’t mean I won’t want to in a year. Or five years. Or whenever. I am still a member of the CapSlam team for CFSW this year and I am looking forward to seeing my team hit the stage. (And, I think I will do Underground Indies this year. I have never done them before and I have at least one poem I would really like to share with my peers.)

To everyone who loves slam, so do I. This is not ‘anti-slam’ in any way. I still love it and want to do my part to keep it going and I can’t wait to hear the next voice to step on stage.

(While everyone – including me – is thrilled with the talent of the great young poets in the region, I want to figure out a way to find the real unserved demographic. I started slamming at 38. Since then, how many regular slammers have we had START in that age range? The only person I can think of off the top of my head is Marz…)

Anyway… this is just me talking. I love poetry and spoken word and slam… I am just going to stop competing for a bit.

It has been nine years. I deserve a break.

I try to write about the Slam Finals each year… what they meant to me. I wrote about them on Facebook, but that isn’t the same. It is too ephemeral.

I write here so I can look back, later, and remember. This is not a casual exercise, nor is it purely ego. I have gone so far as to consider writing a memoir, even though I realize that there is no reason for anyone to want to read it.

It is for me… so I don’t forget.

I have written about this before, but I have a fear of losing my memory. I have never felt like it was a strong aspect of my mind. I grew up considered very smart (even called ‘genius’ as part of one study), but I was never able to capitalize on it, because I couldn’t remember extensive facts and information. I did as well as I did because I was able to ‘work out’ the answers each time, rather than recall them. That is why I did well on ‘aptitude’ style tests. They rewarded that sort of thinking.

Anyway… back to the finals.

Leading up to the finals, I was having some problems. Anybody who knows me, knows the general challenges I (and others) are facing. Things are not getting worse on that front, but it started to get to me. I stopped being happy.

About anything.

I am familiar with the signs of depression and I have dealt with it before, both in myself and with those I love, but this one – for me – was really bad.

I am already not an exceptionally social person, but for this I went into mental hibernation. I stopped wanting to do… anything (except for the OOTP baseball game I play, for some reason). It affected my life. It affected my work. (Ruthanne has been super-great and supportive. She recognized it for what it was and has done everything she can to give me both space and support.)

I kept going to CapSlam because, well, I had to. I run the shows. I never wanted to go, but I went… and generally ended up enjoying it. (I also kept going to my poker games, but that is a different sort of outlet. That group, while I consider them friends, they aren’t generally what I would consider CLOSE friends. I could go there and just play some cards and chat and not have to deal with everything else in my life. Escapism, really.)

But the CapSlam shows… hurt. People stopped coming. My FRIENDS stopped coming. The one part of the world that I saw as my oasis against the hardships of my world BECAME the hardships of my world. Every show reminded me that the love and support that I thought I had around me had all but evaporated when times got bad.

(Oddly enough, I ended up feeling a lot of support everywhere else… inversion.)

I decided to stop slamming. Not forever or anything, but just stop. I wasn’t writing anything good… or that I was willing to share. I wasn’t adding anything to the world and I wasn’t getting anything out of it.

Or so I thought, on both counts.

Then the season ended (which I won… despite ‘not slamming’. You see, I KEPT slamming because we needed to fill up the show… and I kept winning, because I was doing poems that I was really comfortable with rather than trying to do anything new). But I declined a spot in the semi-finals.

Two things happened. One – a handful of people started really encouraging me to put my name back in. I wasn’t sure I wanted to but I will admit, it felt good knowing that there were people who CARED if I was in the mix or not. Two – we had a lot of people decline. This is not all bad stuff… we had people with very good reasons who just couldn’t do it… so we kept going deeper and deeper into the list. We were still going to have very good poets… but I started to worry if the semis would be FULL.

So I added my name back in.

But I also said to myself, if I am going to do this, I am doing it to win. I wanted my name on that belt.

But, on the other hand, I hadn’t been writing… not really. A poem here and there but nothing that was going to put me over the top. Also, I find myself incapable of writing FOR an event like this. It is disingenuous. I can’t write for the scores. I need to just write and then CHOOSE poems based on what will get me where I want to go.

So, what to do for finals?

I sent Ikenna a message. He helped me choose my poems the last couple of years and is a great sounding board. I told him my plan was to do ‘Angst’ in the first round (come out with a BIG poem), ‘The Stranger’ in round two (I think it is my best all-around poem for slam – it has a message I believe in and some really strong poetics to go with it), and do ‘Heaven’ in round three (telling the crowd what I feel about the scene and space we were in). But I also knew that the latter doesn’t always resonate, do I decided to prep ‘Conspiracy of Shame’ in case I needed a bigger scoring final round poem.

This was a stupid, stupid idea. I can’t do that poem like that. I just can’t.

Ikenna told me right away that I should just do ‘Conspiracy’. He was right.

So I started prepping.

I had to get through semi-finals first and call me over-confident or whatever, but I wasn’t that worried about it. Honestly, if I just threw up a couple of poems and DIDN’T make finals, that wouldn’t have broken my heart either. I was originally planning on not performing anyway.

I did ‘Day One’ and ‘Why Art?’. It went… fine. I finished third behind Nina Vuleta and Sarah Ruszala… a couple of talented young poets.

Then I started practicing for finals.

A little about ‘Conspiracy’. Obviously this is a hard poem for me. Before finals I had performed it three times in six years.

I practiced it… while I was already feeling the edges of depression.

Then it wasn’t the edges anymore. It was bad. It was dark.

The day before finals I actually broke down in tears… for nothing. And everything. I saw nothing good in the world.

I was no longer trying to get my name on the belt. I just wanted to get through this. I wanted it to be over. The finals were just another burden weighing me down.

I got through the day Saturday… barely. Ruthanne propped me up and got me to the show and then took care of everything else while I sat in the back and tried to keep from collapsing in on myself. I tried to be friendly and upbeat with the people around me, but failed miserably.

I am sure people just thought I was nervous.

Then came the slam and I was the first name drawn… for the second year in a row.

Back before I started practicing ‘Conspiracy’, I had a plan to switch Angst to the first round if I drew to early. Conspiracy of Shame is not the kind of poem that gets people excited to kick off a show.

By the time I got there, there was no way I could do that. I couldn’t perform another poem without getting this one out first. I was barely holding it together and the only way to deal with it was to do that poem.

So I did. I almost started crying on stage and I could hear my voice wavering and cracking.

I got off the stage and went straight to the back hallway to pull myself together.

I felt like the crowd was with me… but it was also a lot to dump on them first thing. The emotional impact was not insignificant. (Afterwards I had two different people telling me I had them in tears. While that is not the POINT, at least I know that people are HEARING what I am saying.)

Then the scores came. They were not good.

So I thought.

Score creep was going to end any chance I had to get my name on the belt… but I was okay with that.

As it turns out… I was wrong. The judges actually stayed pretty even-handed through the round. I had the top mark until the final two poets (Billie the Kid and Nina Vuleta). I finished the round in third.

I knew that was it as far as the championship went, but I also started to notice that a very nice show and night were unfolding.

Then came round two. I was ready with The Stranger.

Last year I drew first in round one, second in round two, and first in round three.

I think I expected that again.

It didn’t happen. I drew second to last in round two. The Stranger was very well received and I got the second highest mark in the round, behind DMP. (Daniel had not scored well with his first poem but bounced back in round two.)

I wasn’t keeping score but I figured that Nina was probably in first, but not by a huge amount (her second round hadn’t gone quite as well for her… but not badly either), and then it was likely myself, Billie and King Kimbit in a bunch and then Daniel (having passed Brad in round two).

By this point I was cheering for Nina.

I drew first in round three and did Angst. All the bottled up energy, which had been driven into my dark places, exploded out in this poem. That means the big ending, which I had planned to do it a much more… understated manner… came up really big. Loud.

And it absolutely worked.

I scored very well (second highest in the round again)but then Nina went up to finish off the round and started her Binary poem. I knew how good it was… and on that night, she was even better. She got the highest score of the night and it was well deserved. She won, and by a decent amount.

I came second. This was my highest finish at a CapSlam finals. I had been on six teams before that but they were all fourths and fifths (and one seventh that ended up on the team anyway).

I found myself standing on stage grinning, which is something I wouldn’t even have been able to fake earlier in the day. Nina completely deserved to win and in the process became the first female CapSlam Champ (and the youngest… by a lot).

Am I going to claim there isn’t any disappointment? No. Sure it would be great to be able to add CapSlam Champ to my artistic achievements, but it was not to be. Now I am going off to CFSW on my seventh team in nine years (and one of those years, I didn’t compete). With my four new teammates I have now had the honour of working with 23 different people on CapSlam teams.

And I feel like I have nothing personal to prove or accomplish at the festival. So, I am going to do the work so that I can help the other members of my team, get that same feeling. Let’s go to Saskatoon and show the national community what you’ve got so we can add some more names to the list of great poets who are remembered for their work there.

Yeah. That works for me. One day (maybe one day very soon), I will transition to just coaching teams, but for now, I’ll do that coaching from the ‘inside’ and get to work with yet another group of talented poets and hopefully friends.

And that is why I do this.

It feels like our world is shrinking, and not in a good way.

I know of four people who have been important to the Ottawa Slam community who are leaving / have left in a short time span. They were not the first, by any means.

Soon I will be the only person from the first CapSlam National Championship team who still lives in Ottawa. Of my nineteen former teammates, only one is still involved in our scene on a regular basis, and he is hardly ever around, due to work obligations.

Thankfully there are always talented new poets ready to take the stage… because the stage is important.

When I started doing slam I wrote a poem about being too old for it. It ends with a clear indication that I am going nowhere. Later I wrote a poem saying you are never too old to create.

I don’t feel too old… but I do feel kind of tired. The stage feels a little more lonely these days.

I have made more ‘enemies’ through poetry than every other part of my life put together. I have also made some very valued friendships. Unfortunately, sometimes these ended up being the same people.

So what to do about it?

I had already tried to take a break this year, and ended up slamming anyway. I am not going to ‘announce’ hanging it up because too many who make a public announcement like that end up looking kind of foolish when they fall back in.

The CapSlam Final this year feels like an ending, though. I am going to hit the stage and give it my all, MAYBE for the last time at that level. It would seem somewhat poetic if I got my name on the belt after all this time… but it would also seem poetic if I got beat out by one of the fresh new voices that are ready to take my place… all of our places. Either way works.

I am going to leave it on stage, certainly. No tricks. No gimmicks. My heart and soul on the stage for everyone to see, because that is the one thing that has stayed consistent over the last nine years. I do this for the love. I do it for the joy. I do it for the pain and the laughter and the tears and the art.

I do it because that is who I am.

Me at Tree!

Posted: April 29, 2015 in Uncategorized

Last summer I suddenly had a bunch of features lined up.

That may not sound like a big thing, but I don’t generally solicit features, so getting a bunch all at once was a bit of a treat. (The absolute BEST was the show in Vancouver in conjunction with the Vancouver Opera. That may have been my favourite show ever. Even after I forgot a poem…)

In the midst of this, I get a message from Margaret at the Tree Reading Series (the longest running series in Ottawa at 35 years… and MAYBE the longest in the country. At least one of the longest, certainly), asking me to feature… in April 2015. :)

At first I thought it was a typo. :)

But no, due to the vagaries of grants etc., they plan far in advance. They decided to bring in a Spoken Word poet for a little different feel and I was the one that got the nod.

Yay me!

Of course a lot has happened in the intervening time and I think it should be no surprise to anyone when I say that I needed this. Badly. It came at just the right time.

Then the night came and after a nice dinner with Margaret and Colin from Tree while Mia Morgan gave what sounded like a really interesting workshop before the show, it was over to Black Squirrel Books!

There were originally going to be two features but the other person had to cancel, but the open mic took up all the slack. There were a BUNCH of great poems – some by friends like Avonlea Fotheringham, Mia Morgan, Chris Johnson etc… – some by people I had never seen before, or only seen once, etc..

I quite enjoyed it.

Then came my set.

Planning for the show, I figured two things: one, if they went to the trouble of booking a spoken word artist, I had better give them some real, performance-style spoken word. Two, I probably should temper it with some quitter poems so I don’t overwhelm the audience. People who aren’t used to what we do can feel ‘yelled at’ sometimes, and I didn’t want that. (I was wrong.)

Then, when I arrived, I found the set-up a little different than I am used to. There was a big gap between the podium and the audience.

When Colin introduced me, rather than walking to the podium, I walked to that middle area and just launched straight into ‘Day One’, at (close to) full volume, but off mic. I figured that was a good way to introduce myself.

I think that went over pretty well.

I then told them not to worry… that I wouldn’t yell at them all night. 

Back to the podium (for one thing, they were videotaping it, and I probably screwed that up for the first piece.)

Some talking… including a thank you to Jeff Blackman (who wasn’t there, unfortunately). I was recently reminded of a Carleton class I spoke to last year, partly about the idea of poetry as activism, so I talked about how everything you write matters, if it is real for you. I used that to launch into ‘Angst’.

This is where I planned to slow things down a bit. I probably shouldn’t have. The crowd seemed to really like the energy I was putting out there, and switching to more personal, emotional poems didn’t work as well, I thought. Maybe it was the gap, making it a bit more impersonal.

Anyway, I mentioned that I sometimes deal with depression and gave them one of those poems, ‘Insomnia’.

I followed that with the debut I promised. It is called ‘Bair’ and came out of a writing prompt from the Spoken Word Workbook put together by Sheri-D Wilson. I am sure it will stick around for a bit. It was fun.

In his introduction, Colin mentioned that we sometimes do ‘team’ pieces in Spoken Word, which really made me regret not pulling out the ‘team’ version of ‘The Stranger’. Avonlea was there and I really want us to do more with it. Nevertheless, I did the solo version next, which didn’t have the impact that I think it has at our shows. Again, it seems that the extra energy of some of my pieces was what was called for, so the lower key stuff may have been a mistake.

I wrapped things up with ‘1968’ – the slightly changed version that turns it into a bookend with ‘Day One’. I really love that poem but hardly do it because it doesn’t always resonate with the slam crowd. I think the Sixties seem like they might as well be the forties to our relatively youthful audience.

It worked last night, though!

All in all, a great, enjoyable night.

And boy, did I need it.

Body Language

Posted: April 10, 2015 in Uncategorized

Someone at work informed me that he had been asked, “So, is Rusty just quiet? He never seems to talk.”

It reminded me of something I realized recently when I was strolling through old photos on Facebook… the incredible difference in my body language based on where I am standing.

This is me in most of my life…


Do you notice the body language? Shoulders dropped, slouching. Part of that comes from getting tall early… I was much taller than all my friends until I was 14 or 15. Part of it comes from a self-confidence deficit. Part of it from… well, you could probably do a full analysis of my life and discover why someone as physically large as I am would try to make himself physically small so often in his life.

Even in a group…

meek 2

Group of people… I am on the outside. This is self-imposed. I try to stay out of the way. That is just my natural inclination.

At least it was.

Nine years ago, I discovered slam and spoken word. Now this is what I look like on stage…


On stage I am big. Larger than life and just as pretty. :)

On stage I feel like I am in control. I feel like I belong.

These are things that do not often come into play when I am off stage.

So, what should I learn from that? Should I learn that I can adopt this persona that allows me to command attention? That I can be the confident person that I ‘play on tv’?

Well, it COULD be the lesson I learn, but I prefer this one.

There is nothing wrong with that other person. There is nothing wrong with being someone who feels less comfortable in large groups and really values alone time. There is nothing wrong with being the person who goes back to his hotel room during CFSW in order to charge his own batteries.

And there is especially nothing wrong with a person who realizes that having an audience (whether on stage or, to a lesser extent, through these blogs etc.) is a privilege and stepping aside to avoid taking ALL the space can be a worthwhile cause.

Be who you are. Be who you want to be.

Don’t be who they want just because they want it… or because it is easier.

Semi-Finals 2015

Posted: April 7, 2015 in Uncategorized

I thought I was done.

Earlier this year I had decided to stop going out for the team. It would have been nice to get my name on the belt, but after being on six teams, some of the joy had gone out of it.

The thing that I really valued out of those teams were the bonds formed with many other poets. These are people who I would not have been friends with in most circumstances, yet there it was.

I really value that.

But then things changed… there is so much negativity floating around my life that I decided to sit this one out and deal with that. I would still be going to the festival, of course, as National Slam Master, so I decided I would slam less, step aside and…

Well, the ‘and’ is that never happened. We kept needing more poets at our shows. I kept slamming and wonder of wonders, as soon as I stopped caring about my results, I started winning.

I won a lot this year, but all the way through I kept saying that I wasn’t going out for the team. I told Daniel that he would have the top seed in the semi-finals because even if I finished ahead of him, I would be stepping aside.

In the end I WAS the top ranked poet this season, which was nice. Then I DID step aside.

And then I stepped back in.

As I was trying to fill the spots for our semis, I was getting some friendly and well-meant pressure from friends who wanted me to do it.

I guess, deep down, I still wanted it, because I caved and put myself back on the list.

Then I figured that if I was going to do it, I was going all in. No messing around… get my name on the belt.

I prepared for semi-finals and ‘expected’ to win it. (I put ‘expected’ in quotes because I don’t mean it in an arrogant way. I just mean I put myself in that mind-set. I was there to win.)

I had prepared nothing new, though. I mean, normally I start prepping for semis and finals around February. This time I had a week. That’s okay, I figured. That was what I had been doing all year, and it kept working.

I came third.

I couldn’t have been happier.

I am serious. I don’t know if anybody in the place was cheering as loudly as Brad (who came fourth) and I when Nina was announced as the winner.

Now, third is still enough to get me into the Finals, but it was hardly the slam-dunk performance that I had been ‘expecting’. So why was I happy?

In the first round, I finished second, tied with Nina Vuleta behind Sarah Ruszala. In the second round I fell back, with Nina passing Sarah for the win.

I am not going to indulge in revisionist history and claim that the reason I run CapSlam shows is to create a stage for the youth. It isn’t true. I volunteered to help run the show to ensure there was a place for me. Does that sound selfish and self-centered? Sure. But this was back in 2006 and I was fresh on the scene.

And then I kept running the show. I am on my third Collective Director and I am still here… even after I am questioning what I am getting out of slam, I still love running the show.

Because I look at what that show has done for people who have crossed the stage.

I mean, even if you just look at my teammates over the years.

Danielle K.L. Gregoire, Nathanael Larochette, Mehdi Hamdad, Free Will, Ikenna Inyegbula, Komi Olaf, Suhaib Agial, Ian Keteku, Brandon Wint, Sean O’Gorman, Sense-Say, Bruce Narbaitz, Graeme O’Farrell, V, Brad Morden, Gavin Russell, Avonlea Fotheringham, Candice Bruchhaeuser, Artemysia…

That says nothing of the incredibly talented people who have graced our stage who I didn’t get the opportunity to work with like PrufRock, Jamaal Rogers, Steve Sauve, Festrell…

(I would say Kevin Matthews, but we worked together in the Copper Conundrum with Danielle Gregoire)

So what did I see Saturday night?

The next generation rising to the top. Nina Vuleta is FOURTEEN! Sarah Ruszala isn’t much older (you know, compared to me, anyway…)

This has been fun and YES, I would like to get my name on the belt, but if I instead spend my time helping people like this grow as artists and people… that is time very well spent.

Another semi-final to go to see who the other four finalists are. I am pretty sure Daniel Patterson will have something to say about this becoming an all-youth team, but there you go.

No matter what happens, I am happy.