Posted: September 21, 2010 in Poetry

CONTEXT: August 2010

Back in August I was invited for an evening at a friend’s house (Hi Nadine!) Ruthanne had the car so I was waiting for the bus, listening to the Hold Steady on my iPod. While listening I was marvelling at some of the lyrics, thinking that this guy would make an excellent slam poet. On a whim I picked out the next lyric to see what I would do with it.

It happened to be Silly rabbit/tripping is for college kids…

I immediately thought Silly rabbit/tricks are for red light districts.

I started writing the rest in my head.

By the time I got to my destination, I ran into the local grocery store and bought a pad and pack of pens (a poet out without a pad and pen?!?! I KNOW!!) and started writing on the brick wall outside.

However, it seems that the poem I wrote appeals to pretty much just me. I have read it to three people and to say the response was less than enthusiastic would be an understatement.

I have made a few changes and I really want to slam it, but maybe I will find this is just one of those poems that is for me, rather than the audience.


Hey, do you want to
See a trick?
Silly rabbit, tricks are
For places where the lights are red
And all the men are named John.
The girls? Well they are called
Whatever you want them to be, honey,
And if you want more than that
You need to know that these places
Have redefined intimacy
And the legend that she was once Jennifer
From Grande Prairie is a closely
Guarded secret. The location of that
Scar on her inner thigh, though, is
Yours as long as you are willing
To pay the toll.
As much as you think
You are buying, or
Maybe renting,
That fee won’t let you know that the
Scar came from the business end
Of a Player’s Extra-Light
And it really won’t let you know that
It was her own hand that held it.
That is the toll that she herself is
But never in full
And the rollover is eating her
She knows that if she can
Save up enough she can
Enroll in one of those colleges
That lets you pretend you
Finished high school
But she can’t save anything
Unless she holds some back
On her pimp and the last
Time she did that he
Loosened her tooth,
Which is funny
Because Jimmy used to
Want to be a dentist
Before his dyslexia
Left him on the wrong side of
An admissions dismissions letter.
Now he is only about money
And his is tax free.
You want to see a real trick?
Watch how Jimmy manages to
Get to sleep after the
Flash of a 40watt Enlightenment
Reminds him that he swore he would never
Be like his bastard father
Who hit harder when he was sober,
As rare as that was.
Jimmy never knew that his
Father dreamed of singing opera
And woke to an institutional grey
That dreams couldn’t wash away.
The old man drove a new-to-him
Tricked out pick-up
With a fireball paint job
That he bought with his first
Real job paycheque.
Sometimes he would smile and say
It was the best moment in his life –
Other times he would cry and say
It was the best moment in his life.
Until he performed his last trick
With his truck and a length of
Vacuum tubing, leaving behind
A defeated wife and a son
Who would grow to hate him.
I’ve got no tricks to show you
And I have nothing up my sleeves
But ink-scrapings and muscle-ache
But I can tell you this,
Clapping hands won’t always
Bring Tinkerbell back
And would that wishing
Could make the world tame.
Some say the greatest trick
The devil ever pulled was
Convincing the world he
Did not exist,
But I say we do his job
Fine without him
And the real greatest
Trick is making
A person disappear
Behind a cloud of
Perception, layered
With assumption
Until there is nothing
Left but caricature
And the ghost of the
Person left behind.

Jennifer from Grande Prairie
Likes watching the street
Magicians trying to out-hustle
The street musicians
In the battle for some silver
To jingle-jangle
And she just wants to see the one
With the rabbit and the hat.
She says it always used to
Make her smile…
And she had such a beautiful smile.


Next is a three parter I wrote for Bill Brown, but decided not to use.

  1. Toni says:

    i like it.
    is that good or bad?
    coming from this top 40 pop adult housewife.
    product of the big 80’s.

  2. […] Comments (RSS) « Tricks […]

  3. […] there was Cipher Slam… where I did what I think was the best performance of Tricks that I have ever […]

  4. […] the break I weighed my options. I had two ‘safer’ picks: Tricks and Moving to Arizona. Safer due to my comfort level with performing […]

  5. […] came the second round. I did Tricks, which is, quite frankly, one of the best poems I have ever written. That is just my opinion, of […]

  6. Lindsay says:

    As a sex worker, I find this poem incredibly offensive. It is rife with stereotypes and is a completely inaccurate view of prostitution. But good job, you wrote the new Hollywood Blockbuster. Next time you want to write about marginalized communities, ask a sex worker what hir job is really like. I sure as hell don’t work for a pimp (and neither do any of my colleagues), I am not mentally unstable, I am not uneducated (I have two undergrad degrees and am headed to graduate school next fall), I am not a drug addict and I sure as fuck don’t work a stroll. Hey, maybe that’s why that judge scored you so low….Since 85% of sex workers work indoors, and many of us work other jobs, have families or go to school, you never know who might be a sex worker. So pull your head out of your ass and write about what you know, not about what you think you know.

    • rpriske says:

      Thanks for your response. While I don’t agree that this poem says that ALL sex work is like this (and I am sure you wouldn’t deny that there is SOME like this – in fact I HAVE met someone who is not a perfect match for ‘Jennifer’, but she isn’t far off), I could see why you would be unhappy with this portrayal.

      That is not really what the poem is about, however. It is about the way we turn people into cut-outs of what we think we see rather than who they really might be.

      I am sorry you didn’t like it but I stand by the message – in fact, I think it is quite an important one.

    • Darius Djemnik says:

      I didn’t notice the part that said all sex workers are like what he described, but the ones on the street often are. And for most of us, that’s all we know about prostitution because we’re not out shopping for extra fun. For a decade I lived in a red light district where sex workers and their pimps and customers would fight every night. The women came pounding on our door screaming for help, looking for somewhere to hide. They’d shoot up in front of our place and pass out there with needles in their arms. More than once we saw more flashing lights than usual and looked out to see cops and crime tape and a blanket over a body on the sidewalk. Next day that part of the sidewalk would be cleaner than the rest because they’d scrubbed away the blood. But hey, it’s a beautiful choice to sell what you’ve got, isn’t it? Even if you work the part of the stroll where the girls don’t look old enough to go to high school. There’s just no denying that many of these women are desperate and addicted and lost and exploited. Or that they’d do something else – ANYTHING else – if only they knew how to make the switch. They aren’t college gals like you making a few bucks having a good time with clean businessmen who just want a break from the monotony of monogamy. BTW – Do you declare your income, or do you just expect the rest of us to pay for everything including the 65% of your education that is funded by taxes? I assume you make more than $30K per year (unless you’re really bad at this), so you should also be registered to collect and remit the GST.

  7. rpriske says:

    Oh, and THIS is why I wanted to know why the judge gave me a four. I think it is important to understand how our art effects people, rather than just throwing it out into the ether and letting it fall where it may.

    This isn’t the first time I have offended someone listening to one of my poems (though it doesn’t happen very often – I am not a very ‘controversial’ style poet), and it probably won’t be the last. I don’t LIKE it when it happens – it bothers me a great deal, actually – but I can’t start censoring every piece trying to avoid any possibility of offense.

    Regardless, I respect Lindsay’s opinion and I understand why she may disagree with what I had to say.

  8. Lindsay says:

    First, I just want to apologize for the harshness of my first comment. That being said, I find it disappointing that you think spreading harmful stereotypes is an important message. Despite what you say the message actually is, that is not what comes across to the average listener (e.g. me). Most people will absolutely not realize that sex work is far more nuanced and complicated than you have portrayed it–in fact, that reality isn’t even the reality for most street workers, whose work is largely misunderstood. Just because you know one person who might fit this stereotype it is still dangerous to promote this. These stereotypes are what promotes sex work stigma, something I face daily and am constantly fighting against. How is this stigma manifested you might ask? It is the idea that your value as a woman is contingent on the social acceptability of your sexual activity. It is the idea that “whores” are somehow less valuable than “real” woman and therefore disposable.I mean, you literally included every single possible stereotype: we’re drug addicts, we’re motivated by drugs/money to do the work, otherwise why else would we do it, we don’t like the work/it’s demeaning, we’re mentally ill, we have pimps, etc. All you’re missing is to throw in a bit about how our clients are just SOOO gross and you’re set! These stereotypes promote various harmful rhetoric, such as the sex worker-as-victim or sex workers-as-disposable discourse. Please rethink the so-called message you’re sending.

    • rpriske says:

      Well, I’m sorry you feel that way. I DO think you are missing the point of the poem, but I have to accept that it is my fault and I didn’t convey my message strongly enough. mea culpa. (For example, there are exactly ZERO references to drug use in the poem. I have no idea where you got that from, as I never pictured that character as a drug user. I DID portray her as a victim, however, so I will take that on the chin.)

  9. Lindsay says:

    Your comment about knowing someone who could be Jennifer smacked very much of similar comments like “I’m not racist, my husband is black” or similar. Just sayin’. Just because you know one person like this, doesn’t mean that you’re right.

    • rpriske says:

      I have accepted your criticism but THAT isn’t fair. That comment was a direct response to you challenging me to “ask a sex worker what hir job is really like”. Me informing you that I DID speak to someone about what it was like to work the streets (which she did) should not be an opening for further attacks.

  10. […] youth.  Decker had the Don’t Have A Job and Don’t Fit in Blues. Rusty performed Tricks a riff on hard-knock lives. Serafina blew me away with Love You Like Fast Food, a tale of bad […]

  11. Yogi says:

    I gotta say Rusty, I kinda agree with Lindsey here. As a poet I totally understand the metaphor that you are painting as an undercurrent here. But it does get a bit lost in the story-telling.

    On the same hand, I understand where you’re coming from. What you’re doing here is telling a story, painting a picture. Whether it is laced with stereostypes or not is completely inconsequential to the fact that it is a story and it is someone’s story. Lindsey’s right, from what I heard of the industry, nowadays most sex workers do not work for pimp, they are not forced into and they do what they do as a conscious decision while most actually enjoy it. So, she’s right in that fact that they’re not all victims. But you’re not writing a definitive article on what sex workers are here, you’re telling a story and painting a picture to exhibit/deliver a certain message. One of the things with poems is that the message can be largely lost to the reading public.

    Anyway, I just felt inclined to reply here. As you can see I agree with you bothe bcause I understand where you both are coming from. I enjoyed the intelligent dialogue that took place here. Cheers folks

  12. Pearl says:

    The first 7 lines were catchy. Then it swings to sentimental.

    You lost me on the “redefined intimacy”. It seems a judgement coming from the line of thought that sex work causes ruination of homes and families and nations, the line of thought that stigmatizes sex work and doesn’t move the dialogue forward. The issue is not her line of work but the relationships in it and the system around it where police would not hear complains of abuse because of her line of work.

    Whether the worker you spoke to is a representative story is already covered. The upshot I see is her life as tragedy. That’s not to say poems should always paint a cheery picture. People get in scenes that aren’t optimizing them as a person.

    But as you portray it even her smile used to be beautiful but isn’t anymore. When is it a smile not beautiful, whether it needs dentistry or not? She is posed as disempowered and held in that trajectory of narrative as a ruined child of Grande Prairie instead of portrayed, at least, as a survivor of bad turns.

    To be a conduit for her story without pinning her at a bad point of it and yet still keep a compelling story arc is a hard art.

  13. Amanda Earl says:

    thanks for giving readers the opportunity to read the poem and to offer some thoughts. i hope you don’t mind my two cents here…i remember hearing you read this at the Tree open mic when Kevin Matthews performed. at the time, i also didn’t think much of the poem and rereading it, i’d like to offer a poetic criticism rather than a thematic one. the poem is made up of stock imagery of the sex worker. Jennifer from GP is as we, the movie watching public who have seen stereotypes of hookers on the screen, expect her to be. i like the wordplay and the imagery of magic. i think what this poem needs is to be pushed harder, perhaps to take the character of Jennifer and explore her further, to make her unique. i like the juxtaposition of working class individuals with cultural aspirations; however, that too is a cliche; we’ve heard it before. basically the poem is not offering much that is new. i think it could be quite strong if you move past the stock imagery and into emotion and the details of the character. i think it could be very moving if you did this. also, i think it’s great that the poem caused people to question the sex worker. a good poem disturbs the shit… i hope i’ve given you some ways in which you might strengthen the poem. best, Amanda

  14. MH says:

    dear slam-poet, you asked in your blog post why you got a four. as someone who heard your poem i would like to share some insight on why i did not appreciate it. as a friend and ally of many sex workers i can confirm how invisible they may be and therefore how they may not fit the marginalizing, victimizing and stereotypes portrait that you paint here of ONE type of sex work – which may or many not be a lived reality. since this poem is clearly not from an informed first-hand account perspective, i find it problematic that you are using these stories to boost your own claim to fame. have you ever spoken to a sex worker – knowingly? have you ever hired one? are any of your friends sex workers, or better yet are they comfortable coming out to you as sex workers considering the views you entertain on their lives and experiences? i would like you to consider that there may have been sex workers in the audience who did not identify with your words and felt hurt by them. would you consider speaking with sex workers to get a sense of their realities and reviewing your piece? sincerely, heartfelt activist who loves slam but feels awkward knowing these stereotypes are being perpetuated by people who don’t have lived experiences of sex work.

    • rpriske says:

      I will answer one of those questions, as mentioned elsewhere – yes I have spoken to a sex worker. What she told me was not very positive. However, I am aware that not all sex workers have the life that she (or the character in the poem) has had. But to deny that these tougher lives exist is… well, just wrong. (As an aside, I remember back when ‘Pretty Woman’ came out and the general complaint was that it portrayed sex word in too positive a light. Things change… and sometimes for the better.)

      The thing I find interesting about this conversation is the idea that I have spoken negatively about sex worker. The poem I wrote is asking people to not judge people living lives that include details and levels of detail that you may not be privy to.

      I think we all agree on that… where we disagree is to whether I did that very thing. I don’t think so (I do NOT believe that all sex work is the type depicted in part of this poem – I just believe that SOME of it is, I what I have witnessed and what I have been told by someone in ‘the business’ bears this out).

      I am sorry I offended you (or anyone, as said in this thread, that is NEVER one of my goals. I know people who seek out that response, but I am not one of them), but I do not feel that the piece is offensive on its own. It just touched on a subject that you don’t agree with. I don’t belittle that at all. I have heard poems that bothered me in much the same way (an anti-abortion piece comes to mind, or generally religious poems), but that doesn’t mean they are wrong to write them.

      (Well, that anti-abortion poem comes close…)

      Anyway… I thank you for your comment and your honesty.

      I would also like to say, as a general comment, that I am very much in favour of legalize sex work where it is not legal. That would likely have the huge benefit of lowering the percentage of sex workers who are part of the ‘negative aspects’ of the industry even further.

  15. Lindsay says:

    I am not denying those experiences, I am saying that perpetuating those experiences as the norm (which, since you didn’t really try too hard to make Jennifer unique–her story is exactly like every other tragedy porn sex workers are expected to tell if they want to be heard) is VERY DANGEROUS. I’m not sure how I can convey to you that even if I think the poem is technically good (which I do) and even if the experiences are based on someone you actually know, NO ONE IN THE AUDIENCE KNOWS THAT and so in their mind, you are effectively speaking FOR A SEX WORKER. You are painting that particular experience as representative of the whole. And let’s face it, tragedy sells. If you had written a poem about the positive experiences of a sex worker, or a poem that praises a sex worker, it wouldn’t be nearly as controversial or popular. This is my point. You are making a name for yourself off the back of one person’s tragedies and in doing so, spreading very harmful stereotypes–which make it dangerous for me to be out and open about my work. How could one poem potentially cause me harm? Well, since you’ve portrayed sex workers as victims, I’m subject to being “rescued” (and if I happened to have migrated here, I’d be immediately deported to my country of origin and to a rehabilitation facility to learn the error of my ways), I’m subject to police arrest and abuse because I’m criminalized and I’m subject to vicious verbal comments, such as most recently, via text “I hope you get caught for this, you whore!” because I refused to see him. Painting us as victims makes it so that when I tell people that I like my job they insinuate that there must be something wrong with me.

    I’ve heard that you do a lot of wonderful organizing around Ottawa and so I really wish you’d look beyond “well it’s an important message” (it isn’t, you’re just providing fuel for prohibitionists who already think that all prostitution is violence against women) and actually admit that what you’ve written is problematic.

  16. Fred says:

    Were you actually, genuinely interested and open to hearing feedback on why people didn’t like your poem and how you tackled this storyline/topic? Or did you just want validation of that fact that you are right and that people just don’t get how awesome this poem is? The latter rings more true reading the comment thread. I had been happy to see that you were interested in engaging with the person who gave you a four and the rest of your followers in order to understand what had gone wrong. To witness how defensive you have been so far with people who responded to your call and to the sex workers who were generous enough to spend some of their time educating you about why this poem about them is problematic, was kinda heart wrenching. I agree with everything Lindsay said in her multiple comments. It is problematic when people don’t challenge harmful stereotypes. And you know, stereotypes.. doesn’t mean you’ll never encounter realities that resembles them but it is important to recognize that making them the only truth about a certain identity has consequences (and let’s be honest.. Blockbusters, the Ottawa Sun, CSIS Las Vegas, etc all took care of the angle you chose here). Imagine this scenario (as this might help you understand how what is going on here felt to me. As a disclaimer, I’m a member of POWER- Prostitutes of Ottawa Work Educate Resist). Here goes: A male poet write a slick poem on how this woman, let’s call her Britney, is so ditsy and dumb and really takes advantage of dudes, luring them in with her fake boobs, etc. The only thing she wants is men’s money and wants to get married one day to a rich one who she will pussy whip into giving her all sorts of fur coats and pretty pink things. Then women in the room give you a four and start telling you why portraying women that way is problematic, hurtful and plays into misogynistic stereotypes about women. And THEN you tell them: hey, but I basically based this poem on this real woman I know and it’s an important message to share regarding the realities of being a woman because some women are just like that. Basically, in this case just like in the other, being told that we, women or sex workers, didn’t get the point, that we are wrong about feeling offended by something that very much speaks about us, well, it is not ok.

    I say, Rusty, you are a talented poet and most probably a good dude (don’t know you personally). So considering that, I think it would be very important to take a step back and reread this thread and start listening to what people have been telling you, people who live this and may have been thinking about this issue for a long time since they may have been personally experiencing stigma, whorephobia and marginalization because of their job. Maybe you will see, then, if what was brought up resonates with you after that second read. I don’t think Lindsay or anyone here is asking you to speak to every individual realities of people who sex work. But maybe they are telling you to look into using your skill to break down stigma, assumptions, stereotypes (or at least, I am). If you are interested in speaking about the issue of sex work, why not look into all the sex workers’ literature, blogs, stories, demands, activism that is already out there? There are really amazing conversations about this that can be found online and really point to the complexities of this topic and the relationship people have with their job and the outside world’s perceptions of their job. Maybe you can foster relationships with sex workers around you and one day write a piece about your friends and their days and their realities and maybe how they struggle with living in a world that want to dispose of you and creates laws that facilitates that? A world that describes you as a victim, dirty and scary, when you don’t feel like one, when you feel like a survivor or like you challenge sexualities, or someone who needs to pay the bill? A world that doesn’t give you space to talk about how shitty of a day you had, or how you were assaulted because if you do, well, what do you expect? You’re a sex worker.

    etc, etc..

    There is so much to talk about.. Hope this will not turn you off from finding it but rather turn you on..

    • rpriske says:

      What I asked for in the original post (not this one, but the Slam Recap) is to find out why the judge was unhappy with the poem, because I had no idea. (My best guess was that she assumed I was being an apologist for the abusive men in the poem – which is not true, but it was all I could come up with…)

      I still haven’t heard from the judge, so I can’t assume that this is the reason, but the feedback has let me know that there is something that some people take issue with.

      I have read that and absorbed it and I now understand why some people don’t like the poem.

      In that, my curiosity is answered, and I am glad for it. It gives me a different perspective to think about. (At the risk of repeating myself, one of the things that interests me – in a good way – is how much things have changed over the years. I remember hearing how damaging it was to represent ‘prostitution’ in a positive light…)

      The thing you are confusing here is wanting to hear the feedback and understand the reasoning and agreeing with it. I acknowledge the feelings and reasoning behind the comments… I just don’t agree with them (at least I don’t COMPLETELY agree with them).

      That is perfectly okay.

      Where I disagree is that I can’t tell this story (which is NOT about the sex work industry. The character of Jennifer is one of three in a chain).

      In fact, I think that some of the comments in this thread are exactly indicitive of what I was speaking out against in the poem. The poem is about not judging people based on what you see without understanding more about them. Yet that exact thing happened in this thread. (The best, but not only, example is where a poster said that I made Jennifer into a drug addict who is only motivated by money/drugs. There is nothing anywhere in the piece about drugs and there is no mention of what motivated her to become a sex worker. The reader has filled in that information because they are judging the person by the outside appearances. Another example is the criticism that I said she no longer has a ‘beautiful smile’ just because she ‘needs dentistry’. I think that is going for a too shallow interpretation of the peom. What it says is “everyone said, she had such a beautiful smile”. Who I am commenting on there is NOT Jennifer, but the observers who are passing judgment on her YET AGAIN based on what she has gone through.

      Now THIS is where I take full blame and that is, if these things, which seem apparent to me are not so, maybe the fault was in not making them clearer in the poem. If that is the case, well, then, I guess that is my fault. After all, I wrote it.

      Where I have a hard time is in accepting that someone SHOULDN’T write about someone who is part of the seedy side of the industry. To me that is abandoning those people to their fate. I happen to think that the BEST reason to legalize sex work is to eliminate the unsafe / unhealthy conditions that those on the bottom rung of the industry are forced to work in. The people who have written in this thread who have identified as sex workers are clearly working in the part of the industry that do not have these concerns (thankfully), but that doesn’t mean the bad side doesn’t exist. If there is less and less of it all the time… great! But as long as there are people who work the streets under such conditions, there is work still to do.(I also think there are many drugs that should be legalized but that doesn’t mean that it is irresponsible to talk about drug addiction…)

      Regardless, I want to make it VERY clear that there is a huge difference between disagreeing with someone and ignoring or attempting to invalidate their opinions. Am I good at accepting criticism… well, it is not my strongest skill, that is certain, but that doesn’t mean I think it shouldn’t happen. If you find that I say something you don’t agree with, feel free to tell me. Just remember that just because I accept and listen to criticism doesn’t mean I have to agree with everything said.

  17. Lindsay says:

    Please don’t assume what concerns I have as a sex worker or what sector I work in. Don’t assume that because I work indoors that I don’t have to face the potential reality of violence or harassment. Or that I haven’t already.

    There are plenty of people working to change the labour conditions for sex workers, but I’m sorry, writing a poem about poor, poor Jennifer and her abusive pimp, is NOT going to make anyone want to help sex workers who might live that particular experience. They’ll feel sorry for her, but ultimately, to them, she’s a fictional character who is living a life they’ve heard about a 1000 times over. You’re not challenging anything. You’re not helping those sex workers most at risk by writing this poem.

    It is even more heart-wrenching to me that you think you are helping. That you think you’re bringing some dark secret to the light and that by not writing about it “you’re abandoning those people to their fate.” You are making it worse for them in my eyes, and I’ve already explained in detail how you’re making it worse. Just the fact that you refer to sex workers as “those people” (as in, the other, not people like you) indicates that sex workers are considered outside the community, that they are not part of it. That is probably not what you meant, but, as someone who is a poet, you of all people should understand the importance of word choice.

    I am not saying don’t write about sex workers, I’m saying what you have written is incredibly problematic and that you can do better than write a stereotypical poem with no depth and actually challenge problematic stereotypes rather than play into them.

    • rpriske says:

      Well, we were having what I thought was a fair and informative discussion, but now you are trying to twist my words to make it seem that I am saying things that I am not saying and that I believe things I don’t believe.

      It is clear that there is nothing to be gained by my continuing this conversation. Feel free to continue discussing this if you wish (maybe offering links where people can read about the work from what you would consider a better source would be productive), but regardless, I won’t be commenting on this topic again.

  18. […] sections – making them more… poetic c) I dropped a section on a prostitute. I ran into some problems with my potrayal of a prostitute in a poem this summer and it really bummed me out. While I would […]

  19. […] most hits for a post that includes actual poetry was Tricks (with 124)… but that was still related to ‘controversy’. I was accused of being […]

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