My Dad and Slam and the Finals and Everything

Posted: June 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

This is going to be long. Fair warning for the tl;dr crowd. This is going to talk about slam. This is going to talk about my dad. That outweighs the slam part in every way imaginable, but I need to talk about both because last night, these two facets of my life were temporarily completely interwoven. This may feel jarring… but that is kind of the point.

I am a wreck. I am in physical pain as my stress has turned my mental anguish into an outward manifestation of a sore back, legs, everything.

Right now, I really hate slam. I really love it too. I know the love will win out but the churning in my guts needs to be dealt with. I needed something tonight and I got it, but then it got very messed up and now I need something else. Maybe this – writing this – is it. Maybe not.

This is my journey.

I have talked on this blog about how I decided to not let my own insecurities and my preconceptions about my evolving place in the slam world to stop me from getting what I wanted and this year that meant I really wanted to get on the CapSlam team for the fifth time.

But there are two threads to this story that came to a collision point last night. The other one started last year…

I don’t remember when I was told that my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. I had been told, but to really understand it was a whole different thing. When it really hit home for me was this past Christmas. Ruthanne and I go out to Victoria at Christmas every few years. It is nice to be out with the family then, but it is very expensive so we can’t go every year. It was pointed out to me, this time, that it might be a good time to go because the development of my father’s illness would likely mean that this would be the last year that it would be meaningful for him. Next year he might not even realize that I was his son.

I had no real idea that there would be no next year.

A note about my mother and sister… they are both wonderful, strong, amazing people. They have been there right through this. I can only barely comprehend what this has been like for my mother. To sit here and say how hard it was for me to see my father like he was makes me feel very selfish. They watched his deterioration every day. They were there for all of the bad stuff. They carried the burden. I sit here, thousands of miles away, and write poetry and talk about how hard it was for me.

And now I am crying again.

One of the things I have said a few times at different points during this journey is that you can prepare yourself but you are never prepared. Preparation is an illusion, and that is how it was at Christmas for me. Toni (my sister, for those that don’t know… and you should know. She deserves recognition), had tried to let me know what it would be like.

Then I saw him.

He was more frail than I remember, but he was never a large physical presence. Having a stroke in your twenties and all the heart complications etc. through your life will take its toll, so that part didn’t phase me.

He was quieter than usual. He could be argumentative… a trait I inherited from him, which would often lead us to rip-roaring debates… or arguments, to be more honest… when I was growing up. That was gone.

And then came the moment that felt like a straight punch to the guts.

We were at the dinner table for a wonderful Christmas spread prepared by my sister. We were talking about birth-dates for some reason and as part of the conversation I mentioned mine – March 22nd. My dad, who had remained fairly quiet, suddenly perked up. “That’s my son’s birthday,” he said.

Memory is a strange thing. He had this little fact stored away. Such an insignificant thing that in different circumstances might have made me happy. The fact that this memory was important enough for him to keep – though I know that importance has nothing to do with it. At that moment, all I could think was that while he remembered that he had a son, and he remembered the date of his son’s birth, he had no idea that his son was sitting at the table with him.

I think that was the first time I ever cried for my father. It was not the last.

Again, I know that my mother and sister endured much, much more than I did. I kind of feel guilty about putting such importance on this moment, but it is the moment I have. Being far away means that my burden was a different one. There is no comparison between the two (or three, really) journeys.

I came back to Ottawa and did what I do. I wrote a poem for my dad. It was called ‘I Remember’ and was about the feeling I got when I saw him like that. It felt like a great injustice that someone who had been through so much physical hardship would have the simply dignity of his own thoughts stripped from him. It tied in with my own fear of losing my own memories to the ether.

When I said in the poem that ‘nothing scares me more than forgetting’, I meant it. My memory has been a source of concern and fear for a long time. Watching my father lose his way to Alzheimer’s feels like I am watching an advanced preview of my end. It scares me. A lot. Every time I lose my way or have trouble memorizing a poem or forget simple things, it sends me into a small panic. Is it worse now? Is this the moment that I forget something I would have not forgotten when I was 15? 30? 40?

I am told that it is important to exercise your memory like a muscle. I do that with poetry. It all comes back to poetry.

Jump forward a little bit. This part I have talked about already, but I am going to touch on it again.

I decided I really wanted to give my best to a run at the CapSlam team this year. I have been on the team four times but it felt like that my ‘slam-best’ was passing me by. I decided to not ‘let’ that happen.

I can’t speak for others, but for me, the single most important element to spoken word poetry is honesty. I would much rather hear something heart-felt and sincere than the most talented linguistic labyrinth of metaphors and pop references. Those kind of pieces can be fun, but they don’t move me in the same way… unless they are ALSO honest, moving poems.

I deal with that by NOT writing for slam. When I have found myself writing when I ‘need’ a good slam piece, the results are not what I would like. So I instead write whenever I can and then LATER pick which poem I am going to slam. This year, with my new resolution about giving it my all, I pulled out my dozenish unperformed poems and tried to choose which pieces would get me where I needed to go. I had a hard time being objective so I enlisted the help of my friend, Ikenna Onyegbula, aka OpenSecret. I have said elsewhere that nobody understands what we do better than him. Nobody.

He went through all the pieces I sent him and gave me back notes about which pieces he thought would work and why. He had very specific reasons why certain poems were ‘semi-final’ poems and which were ‘final’ poems and not just for relative strengths.

I valued his input but I was also not completely convinced. He had passed over a couple of poems that I thought were really strong and made some suggestions that I wasn’t totally onboard with. I remember thinking, the anger poem? Isn’t it too negative? And the one for my dad means a lot to me, but will it mean that much to the audience?

I decided to take his word for it. I asked him for his help for a reason and maybe he saw things I didn’t.

The semi-finals came around. I went with Ikenna’s suggestions to do ‘Angry’ and ‘Speed Dial’, even though I wasn’t sure that ‘Angry’ was the way to go.

It went very, very well, and ‘Angry’ led the way. Ikenna was right. I decided to take my concerns about the finals piece for my dad and leave them behind and take it on faith that Ikenna knows what he is talking about.

Around then, my dad had to go to the hospital. He had deteriorated rapidly since I saw him at Christmas and my mom couldn’t take care of him properly any more. Her health was the next thing threatened so she made a very difficult, and absolutely the right, decision.

(This is one of those things… I support my mother’s decision COMPLTELY, but even to express an opinion seems presumptive. Who am I to have an opinion one way or the other? I am not there. I don’t REALLY know what this is like at all.)

I kept preparing for the slam. I do have memory problems so I need a lot of lead time to get pieces memorized and comfortable. I was working.

Along the way, I made another decision. I was going to do something for myself. I was going to enrol in Ikenna and Brandon Wint’s performance workshop series. I was doing it for the most selfish reason ever. I missed something.

How much ego is involved it what we do? In my case, a lot, despite having very little self-confidence. I get something out of performing that an introvert like me would never have expected. A (probably unhealthy) sense of validation. It used to be that when my name was called there was a buzz from the audience. They were excited to hear what I had to say. I felt like that had gone away. I wanted it back. I had plateaued as a performer and I wanted more.

Then, on May 18th… two weeks before the Finals… three days before my first workshop with Ikenna and Brandon… I got a call from my mother. My dad was being put into palliative care.

I know most people don’t really understand Alzheimer’s. I certainly don’t. How would losing your memory threaten your life? Well, forgetting goes well past birthdays and what you ate for breakfast. His extended to his body forgetting how to function. His heart was always a problem. He had open-heart surgery multiple times. His body could no longer keep up.

He hurt and no longer knew why.

I spoke to my sister and she told me that they had no real idea how long it would be. “Two days to two months,” she said.

I had a show that night. I was supposed to be hosting and running the music. I tried to find someone to take over for me but Brad and Kay’la were out of town, I had the cash box etc. I decided I could do it. I asked Ray to host and I got Sean O’G to run the sign-up list so I could just sit behind the DJ booth and run the music.

This is when my troubles came to the attention of people in the poetry community. I thought I could do it, but the weight sat on me like an elephant. I had trouble breathing and my thoughts wouldn’t work the way I thought they should.

After the show I just went home.

The next morning, early on Sunday, May 19th, my sister called to tell me that my father had passed.

Frederick Simon (Fred) Priske, 1943-2013.

He didn’t get his two days. He got less than 24 hours.

I thought I was prepared.

I wasn’t.

Preparation is an illusion.

I took it harder than I expected. I thought I was ready. My dad’s health problems meant he had lived longer than doctors probably had expected. If you tell someone who has a stroke at 27 that they will live to be 70, that probably sounds like a good deal.

In addition, we weren’t that close, really. Our relationship had been tumultuous over the years, though it had settled down into something workable. I spent a number of years thinking that he completely discounted me and thought I was worthless… only to find out that he was telling other people about what I was accomplishing with some measure of pride. It was an odd realization, but even that was a long time ago.

He was my dad. We didn’t have a lot of the trappings of cliche. We didn’t go out and play catch growing up. The stroke had seen to that. In a lot of ways he was this ‘other’ where my mother was ‘home’.

But he was still my dad. I remember when I graduated high school and was getting ready to go to the actual ceremony and he offered me a beer. It was touching because I knew that was all he could give. He didn’t know how to say he was proud of me. It was his version of a rite of passage. I understood.

A side note about that. Yes my father was an alcoholic, but that also may give you the wrong idea… and many people got that wrong idea all his adult life. He was an alcoholic and he liked his beer a little too much, as his father did before him. (There is a reason I drink only rarely.) But so many people, knowing he drank, would think he was drunk all the time. He wasn’t. This is not selective memory as I am willing to face harsh truths. One of the things the stroke did was alter his speech patterns. He slurred his words. People thought it was because he was drunk. That was one of the greatest injustices foisted upon him. Do not assume.

So, my father died on Sunday. Monday was a holiday. Tuesday I went to work.

There was to be no memorial. No service. No gathering of any kind, per his wishes. My mother made it clear that I shouldn’t even come out to Victoria.

I understand. I wouldn’t even dream of claiming I knew what this was like for her but it became pretty clear that what she needed was distance. She need her space. I accept that.

But it was hard.

I went to work, as if nothing had changed.

I sat staring at my computer screen. My boss came over and could see something was wrong. I told her. She pretty much pushed me out the door. (Due to the rules where I work… bereavement leave has to be started within two days of the passing of the deceased. If I hadn’t left before the day was up on Tuesday, I actually would have lost the leave.)

I stayed home the rest of the week.

That night was the first workshop with Ikenna and Brandon. I decided to still go. That was a good decision. It got my mind on something else… but never far away. I realized that I was going to have to change the poem I wrote for my dad a little bit, if I still wanted to do it.

I still wanted to do it.

I came to the realization that this is what I needed. This would be my memorial that would allow me to move forward. It would be what I wanted to leave for my dad.

Suddenly the finals had a whole different meaning. I put my all into this, but for a different reason. I was still unsure about the poem but I decided that if I didn’t make the team because of this piece, and I still got what I needed out of it, that would be perfectly fine.

The day came. I was very, VERY stressed out. I was a physical wreck for no reason other than the toll the stress was taking on my body. Every time I practiced the poem at 100%, I ended up crying, at the end. I was okay with that. It allowed me to get through it. I decided that I was going to leave the room as soon as I was done the poem, because I didn’t want to hear the scores. They could only interfere at that point. I found my place to stand without thinking that Brad and V would also likely go there. We have similar habits at slams. They are the people I talk to in my nervousness normally.

(Side note: this is not something that you quantify, but I kind of realized something last night. Brad and V have become two of my best friends in the poetry community… despite having very little contact with them outside the shows. Ikenna as well. With Danielle and Greg moved away and Kevin not being so active in the slam side of the world, they are probably the best friends I have IN that world and I value them so completely and utterly… I am very glad that they were there with me, even though it helped change the night in a way I didn’t want it to go. It likely would have anyway and at least my friends were there.

I did my poem. I went up 4th out of 8, which is a pretty good spot. I started my poem… I gave a little dedication to my dad with my eyes closed and almost lost it right there.

Those emotions that were bubbling over by the time I got to the end of the poem were right there, right away. I knew I had to hold it together, but you could hear it in my voice.

I could see the audience but I didn’t look around very much. I absolutely would NOT look at Ruthanne as I was afraid that would be too much for me. I got through it. The audience was quiet but snapping in support. I was starting to cry when I finished it but I got through it. Then I left, with my head down. Off the stage and out of the theatre. I didn’t want to hear the scores. I didn’t want to be happy or mad or anything about the scores themselves. This was about the poem. Randomly, I heard the first score before I got out the door. It was an 8.

The scores were low, and I didn’t care. I just wanted out of there. I walked around in the lobby for a bit and then came back in. I could hear that Brad had gone up and I wanted to support him, but that is when it hit me like a ton of bricks. I starting crying in earnest. The emotional outpouring had reached its peak. I left again.

I walked around for a minute, enough to get myself together and went off to the washroom to dry my cheeks and get my breath back. When I came out, Brad was leaving the theatre doors. I asked how it went. He was happy with his performance but scored poorly. That kind of sucked. Back when I was still focusing more on the team, I was hoping to make a team with V and Brad on it.

He then said, “You did really well, though,” with a big smile. I thanked him, but I honestly thought he was talking about the poem and not the scores. “You got a 28.2, I think.” (It was actually 28.1.)

That was huge. The highest score up to that point was a 27.4.

It turns out that the 8 I heard was an outlier. That was the only low score I received that round.

I went back in and checked the scores with V. The round ended and I was in first place… by a decent margin. (V was in 2nd with a 27.6)

What? You mean I could actually win this? I could be CapSlam Champion?

That did it. I forced myself to compartmentalize my mind. Dealing with my dad and the poem for him had monopolized my brain. That WAS more important than the team… but if I sat there and let this opportunity pass… well, that would be something I would regret… I thought.

I went outside and got my second round poem together. If I was unsure about the ‘slam value’ of ‘I Remember’ (which I may rename to ‘The One About My Dad’, as that is what I keep calling it), I was not unsure at all about ‘Lean On Me’. This was my slam dunk poem.

I started to believe.

On the break I saw Nadine Thornhill, who came just to hear my memorial piece and had to leave but she told me that her son was writing me a poem “so that I would feel better”. I think I was cried out at the point or that would have done me in.

I switched completely to ‘slam-brain’ and I wish I hadn’t. Did it take away from what I had done in the first round? Not to everyone else, but it did to me. It may me disappointed, when I didn’t want to be disappointed.

I went up 6th, but right before me was Bruce Narbaitz, who absolutely captivated the crowd with the most impressive bit of crowd interaction I had ever seen in slam.

My poem just didn’t have that same level of excitement to it and it fell flat in relation. Going after him caused an impact for me. I fell from 1st to 3rd and Bruce’s (well-deserved) lead was looking insurmountable.

The thing is, before the slam, I would have been thrilled to be the team alt again. I have been there. I am good with it. But for the space of an hour, I thought I could actually get my name on that belt and get to be the Capital Slam Champion.

On an emotionally wrenching night, it was far from the biggest thing, but it was one more thing. The weight settled in.

Then came the third round and here is where things got messy. V was keeping score and she had made a mistake. It happens. Suddenly we were convinced that Brad was ahead of Gavin and had made the third round. The thing is, Brad had left, thinking he was out. We thought he had gone for a smoke or whatever, and if he wasn’t there when his name was called…

V and I went looking for him.

We found him, got back to our spot in time for Ikenna to call Gavin up to the stage.


We scrambled for V’s notes and I found the adding mistake she had made. The air went right out of our sails. Not only was Brad not in, but we had gotten him all excited and happy only to pull the rug right out from under him. I just felt awful. The look of disappointment on his face… It was awful.

Then I got called up.

So, what was I doing when I should be preparing to come on stage for a third time?

Not prepping my poem.

I got up there, launched into ‘Stroll On’, and messed it up less than 30 seconds in. I skipped a section, lost my place, tried to gather my thoughts for what seemed like an eternity, jumped ahead a few lines and finished strong. As far as the competition went, it was a near disaster. (The only thing that would have made it worse, competitively, is if it had happened in the 2nd round. If it had happened in the first round, it would have been a whole different thing and about things a lot more important than the competition.)

I got the lowest scores of the night, which I deserved, and fell to 5th.

(As an aside, this is EXACTLY why I don’t like the final round being 5 poets. Somebody loses. I have never felt like I LOST when I was the alt any of the other times.)

So, I am team alt. It is a good team, with Bruce as champ and V, D-Lightfull and Gavin Russell in the other spots. We are going to have fun. I always enjoy being on a team and being alt actually lowers the pressure somewhat. The rules are different this year and I am allowed to be part of team pieces. (I also get to do one of my own poems, but I probably won’t. I don’t like that rule because it takes a spot away from someone who earned it.)

I know I am going to have a good time and I am going to enjoy being on the team, but this whole thing, as tied in as it was with my dad, had been very hard.

A lot of people told me how much the piece moved them. It meant a great deal. That is more important than any of the rest and I know that. I feel that. The real problem was that I let myself get swept away in the moment… the wrong moment.

When I got home, I read some of the tweets and found out that people were standing for my performance. I didn’t see that but it was really good to hear.

(As an aside, why did I just realize what a fan John Akpata is? I read what he says and is always the most supportive person, but I think I had it my head that when he was saying nice things about my poetry that he was just being ‘generally’ supportive (which is great) rather than intentionally supportive of me. That was my own blinders. He is a great person and a good friend and I KNEW that but I guess it is one thing to know something and another to understand it.)

The most important thing is that I got to do my poem for my dad. Will this give me closure? I don’t know. I hope so. I look forward to sharing it with my mother and sister. They are two of the three (with Ruthanne – who has been awesome and incredibly supportive through this whole process) most important people in my life and they have been incredibly strong through this.

They deserve specific recognition.

Velma (Banner) Priske

Toni (Priske) Chow

I hope you both find whatever peace you need. I hope the same for myself.

  1. Trisha says:

    Rusty – this is the most emotional personal piece I have ever read and I feel better, if somewhat teary, for having read it. As a close friend of your Mother’s, I saw the anguish she was going through and was just glad to have the coffee pot ready for her. She is a strong person who has raised two very strong children. I value her friendship more than any other I have had – she’s more like a sister to me. Your Dad put up with my visits with a sense of humour and was, I’m sure, happier to see my dog than he was me. He loved dogs so.

    I’m not familiar with ‘slams’ but you should be very proud of what you have written and how you have dealt with your loss. I’m sure it was not an easy piece for you to write – baring your soul the way you have. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feelings and your recognition of your Mother and Sister has, I’m sure, meant so much to them.

    Be strong,


  2. Inez says:

    Rusty, you are courageous to allow yourself to be so raw out there on the stage, a Brave and beautiful man. I share your fear – every slip in memory, or distracted moment (and there are lots) , or just general vagueness about details, terrifies me. I’m so afraid that I’ll work until 65 (only 4 yrs away!) retire on a stupidly small pension, then disappear mentally within a year or 2. The fucking gene pool roulette was played out all those years ago but we won’t know if we won or lost for a while yet. The question is, how do you keep the fear gremlins from stealing our NOW? Thanks for the beautiful poetry last night Rusty. I’m so glad you’re on the team!

  3. jessicaruano says:

    Thanks for writing this, Rusty. Wish I had been there to witness your performance. I owe you a hug x

  4. […] I also wanted performance practice, so slam I did! In the first round I did The One for My Dad. It is the first time I have performed it since the CapSlam Finals. I told Ikenna that I hoped that […]

  5. […] had been doing three poems over and over before the festival. Once was Angst. One was The One For My Dad. The last was The […]

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