My Night at the Slam / Reacting to Oppressive Speech

Posted: March 16, 2014 in Uncategorized

Well… where to start.

Let’s start with this one… this is my blog. This is different from the Capital Slam blog or the Capital Poetry Collective blog.

When I write the recap, I stay pretty neutral. I don’t talk about content very much and just give the scores etc. This time it was a bit different because it didn’t seem right to report on the night without commenting on the crowd reaction. Usually that means the big crowd pops. Tonight it meant hissing.

But there was more to the night than that… much more. I will walk through it as always… but if you don’t want to read what I think – full-out, unedited, then maybe you should turn back now. Free speech works both ways. I have informed the people I come down on pretty hard that this blog post is coming. This is not to open a debate (though if they want to, they can do so), but to make sure these statements are not ‘behind the back’ gossiping.

In a cartoonized expression – {in Hulk voice} RUSTY MAD!


So, this was a pretty big slam. This was the final slam of the regular season… of our TENTH regular season. I was going to be hosting and DJing.

An interesting thing happened right away. Normally at the last slam there is a mad dash to try and get the last performance in to qualify for the CapSlam semis. This year that didn’t happen. The poets who wanted to compete, already had and felt comfortable in their spots. Nobody was going to catch PrufRock for top spot (the only one who could have caught him mathematically was me, and I would have had to score a 29.7 to do so).

The sign-up list was light while the venue was getting packed! It was one of our best turnouts for the year, and we only had SIX slammers!!

PrufRock had signed up. Billie the Kid. Avonlea (who needed that third slam). Brainstorm, Playto and Omar (AKA Obnoxious). That was it.

Obviously that wasn’t what we wanted, so I rushed around and tried to figure out how to switch things up. So, Michel volunteered to host… but he had to leave early. DMP (who was one of our features) would also be the sac poet… AND take over as host after his feature so Michel could bounce. That opened up me to slam, giving us seven. Bruce Narbaitz showed up at the last minute and agreed to slam as well, so we got eight. Eight is good. By having each poet go through to the second round, we still had a full show for the audience. Good stuff.

Of course that meant I had to get ready to perform. Fast.

I decided to do Why Art? I ran through it… and stumbled a bit, but I got it back and figured I was good to go. I wasn’t concerned about winning… just representing myself well and having a good show.

The open mic had a nice highlight when a poet from K-W Slam named Julianna Gomez did a poem dedicated to slam in general and us in particular as CapSlam was the fist event of its kind she had been to. That was nice. (I wonder, was the K-W presence what triggered our first ever – to my knowledge – hissing reaction? If so, THANK YOU even more for being there!)

Then came the slam. Good poems. Good poem after good poem… but then, about half-way through, Omar came up.

I was trying to make sure I had my piece, while also listening to the poets and running the DJ board. Things seemed okay, so I was able to listen to Omar… and it was a very angry poem. That’s okay. I have a number of very angry poems myself. But then it turned.

He started ranting about the evils of women. I caught some stuff about porn and he seemed to be blaming women for his problems in life. Then (with what I would call hatred in his voice) said “feminists’ with venom… then he caught himself and went back to say “fucking feminists” with a real sneer.

There was a clear and audible hiss from people in the room. I have never heard that at CapSlam before but I know what it means. It is a strong way to express displeasure with a poem (traditionally but not exclusively a sexist poem) without disrupting then performance. I like that. You can say what you think while still respecting the poet’s right to say their words.

That is in retrospect, though. At the time, I was just mad. Listening to hate speech on our stage, which I hold as close to sacred as I get, had me seeing red. I try not to show my emotions during other people’s poems, because I AM standing on stage, as DJ… but I was fuming and anyone who could see me probably could tell.

I have heard things I didn’t agree with on that stage before, and I have spoken about them in this blog before. There was one occurrence where a poet said some things that were racist, but I honestly believed that he didn’t understand what he had done, so I spoke to him afterwards. He thanked me, seemed to have learned, and went on to become a strong part of our community, never performing that poem again. We had a case where somebody said something racist at our finals (which I didn’t actually hear at the time because I was prepping to do my own poem… and a really tough one for me as well), and we had fall-out from that. (I wish people then knew they could do something like hiss, so they could have their voices heard as well.) We had an incident where a poet said something that was homophobic on stage… he was doing on alder poem and forgot it was in there until he got to that line and clearly felt bad about it once he had done it…

In other words, these things will happen occasionally. The difference between some cases and other cases to me is when the poet understands what they did. That young poet who thought context made racist speech okay… he was wrong but didn’t know he was wrong, He now knows and has moved forward. But here was have a case where a poet was saying things that were specifically trying to insult and damage women. There was no misunderstanding here. He said his words in a spit of anger and vehemence. It was ugly. If any woman told me after (and there was more than a couple who DID) that they felt threatened by his tone and felt unsafe in his presence at that moment, I completely understand.

So then what?

I knew I could get called up at any moment. I tried to refocus and get my poem down. I couldn’t get through it. At all.

I decided to with to The Stranger. It is on a different topic but connected enough that it would make me feel a little better.

I tried to run through it, but nope. I still couldn’t keep my mind on the poem.

This could have been a big land-mine disaster for me. Not the most important thing in the night, but it still matters.

It turned out I got drawn last.

Right before me went Brainstorm. That was interesting because there was a certain tone to his poem. The basic content was very solid and positive about him standing on his own and refusing offers of help… purely his voice and good for him. Part way through, though, this repetition about being a ‘Real Man’ felt a little off… but I dismissed it because I thought my brain was being coloured by the previous problematic poem. I am actually not sure. Maybe I would have to hear it again.

Then it was my turn. What was I going to do? I wasn’t sure I could get through any of my poems cleanly and I wasn’t sure I wanted to let this go by without saying anything.

In my pocket were two poems that I was thinking of memorizing for semi-finals. One was the poem I decided to do, and the other was the full length version of Merchant of Salt.

I have never performed the three-minute version. I have done both the one-minute and two-minute versions but the big thing they leave out to get down to time was a section about men telling women had to act, live, dress etc. What I am talking about in the poem is men who do so with so-called good intentions, though misguided, but still…

As I approached the mic, I pulled it out my pocket, said “last second change” into the mic and started reading.

I never read at slams. I am not opposed to people who do, but memorizing is a big thing for me. I find it really important.

The crowd reacted strongly. Afterwards I had people come up and thank me for the poem and said they realized what I had done and why I had done it. That was nice. The scores were mostly good, but I didn’t really check them out. (There was one low one. I also got one low one in the second round. I guess one judge didn’t like what I was throwing down. That’s cool.)

I felt a little better.

(I felt WAAAY better after the feature. Sir Realist added music to his poetry in an EPIC fashion! Mind blowing. DMP was also awesome (though I wish he would throw more humour in when doing a set. His serious stuff is really good, but his funny stuff is as well! Let’s see some of both!)

With my mind settled a little bit, I focused on the second round. I took a look at the scoresheet and saw I was in second, behind PrufRock. (In fact, I just noticed that we were actually tied. My score was added up incorrectly. It didn’t change anything in the end.)

I still had another poem to do. With a calmed mind, I ran through The Stranger and had it down.

This time Pruf went first and did his Douchebag poem. Funny stuff. I was next. I started really quiet, which I find really effective on a loud night and following the highly energetic and entertaining Pruf, it worked well. I did my poem. People listened. It went very well.

Again, mostly good scores with one low one. I hadn’t done the math, but I figured Pruf still had it, which was all good.

The rest of the second round went down without a hitch. Omar did not repeat the tone of his first poem. Everything was good.

Well, it turned out that I won, by the narrowest of margins (we thought) with Pruf and Bruce behind me by .1 (actually it was .5… and Pruf had received a .5 time penalty in round 1).

That was cool. It was nice to pick up the win (and the cash prize) but it didn’t change my spot in the rankings. It was still Pruf #1, me #2.

Semi-finalists would be sent out later, but first we had our post-show Zak’s socialization and debrief. I stood outside talking to Brad and Nathanael for a bit so when I got there we already had a group of four at the table. I fit myself in between Jenica and Chris (Brainstorm) and Chris IMMEDIATELY wanted to take umbrage with… my second poem. That caught me off guard a little bit, because I thought he was calling em out for calling Omar out, if you get what I am saying.


There is a certain set of phrases that he disagreed with. I linked to the poem above (I’ll do it again.. because you should really know what it says to understand this next bit) but the passage is “nobody wants to be accused of a crime or threat of a crime just for existing. To be judged based on your chromosomes with no possibility of retort. But this is a small loss compared to going through life as a walking target…”

Now to be VERY clear, I have no problem with someone disagreeing with what I say in my poetry. But the discussion wasn’t about my poem… it was about the idea that men should be aware of their effect on women around them, especially those they don’t know, compared to his assertion that it is unfair for men to be “seen as criminals”.

I pointed out to him in that it my story, I was never persecuted in any way. I was never treated poorly. I was never accused of anything. I just saw someone who was concerned and acted accordingly to allay that concern.

I don’t consider this some grand gesture. I call it “not being an asshole”.

He was having none of it. He said that by doing that I was somehow perpetuating the idea that men are dangerous. I see that as a crock. What I was doing was using my awareness to try to make things better for another person.

This is pretty much text-book privilege. Men don’t know what it is like to be worried about walking alone with someone they don’t know walking behind them. This is why my poem is structured the way it is… because my memory of how scared I was the night after I was mugged made me realize what that must be like.

Jenica (as the only woman at the table) tried to explain that feeling of fear and why it happens. Again, as far as I was concerned, he wasn’t listening. He seems to think that his right to go through life unimpeded is more important than hers (this hypothetical him and her). So, I told the story about why my story became A story. It wasn’t because of women who appreciated the sentiment. Not at all. It was because after it happened, certain men that I knew who I mentioned it to reacted with, “Why should I have to do that? She is the one with the problem.”

I was appalled. Keep in mind that this was more than twenty years ago. I am still appalled.

Let me make this clear. Nobody forced me to cross the street. Nobody ASKED me to cross the street. I did so to try and make somebody feel a little more comfortable. Chris thinks that this is a bad thing because it is somehow making men guilty. The logic is just messed up AND it just oozing with male privilege.

He insisted that we ‘agree to disagree’.

To quote a Shane Koyczan poem, “And you can’t agree to disagree, because they’re fucking wrong!”

We moved on. A little bit. Briefly.

Somehow we got on the topic of something someone else had said on Facebook. This person had said something that I found kind of bizarre, about women, and I engaged him in conversation. (I don’t want to say that what he said was offensive, but it certainly could be taken that way… well, I think it is, but when you are including religion in the mix… anyway… that isn’t the topic) But I mentioned that I inadvertently opened a can of worms because then some women saw the comment because it now appeared on MY wall, and reacted accordingly.

Suddenly Chris said, “That was your mistake. You should never defend women because they will never defend you.”

All right now… this was a whole different ballgame. Before he was arguing about my chosen behaviour. (Ridiculously, in my opinion, but hey… it’s my blog…) This time he was disparaging all women in a sweeping, insulting generalization. Jenica was mad, and I didn’t blame her one bit. What an blatantly insultingly sexist thing to say. So we called him on it. He started saying that his experience said that women will never help you when you need it, blah blah blah. This was pure, 100% misogyny. We argued with him for a bit and then just shut it down. We weren’t there to fight. This was supposed to be downtime.

The conversation changed but it was soon clear that Jenica was very upset. (Again, I do not blame her at all. I wanted to tell Chris to get the fuck out of there… but that isn’t my way.) She told Bruce and I, quietly, that she thought she wanted to leave. She was looking up her bus schedule. We supported her. Bruce offered to pay for her food (that hadn’t arrived yet). I told her that I could give her a ride home, but I had to wait until Ruthanne got there with the car (she was at a friend’s in Lanark County). Either way, we supported her decision. Very quickly she smiled and said that she felt okay and would stay. She said afterwords that the fact that we supported her made her feel better. (And I wouldn’t even be mentioning these things at all, except she already shared as much on Facebook and I feel okay that I am not divulging anything she would not want revealed.)

I turned my body, kind of cutting the booth in half, and Jenica, Bruce and I went on having a nice conversation and enjoying what was left of the evening, without having to put up with an assault on her gender. (I felt kind of bad for Daniel, who was left out in the same manner, but there wasn’t a whole lot we could do at that point, due to the geography of the situation.

Eventually Daniel and Chris left to catch the bus. We waited until Ruthanne got there so we could give Jenica that promised ride home and that was that.

Now, some people are going to be unhappy that I wrote all this. Maybe Omar and Chris for two, but also other people. Well here is the thing… I believe in free speech, including THEIR free speech. Go ahead and say what you want to say. The thing is, some people think free speech means speech with no consequences. That is where we disagree. Say what you want to to say and then be prepared for people to judge you for it. If people are going to say things that are misogynistic, then I am going to judge you by the words you say. Period. Now you can do the same to me. Am I a bleeding-heart, small-L liberal who is overly judgemental? I can live with that.

  1. Tara Nelson says:

    I know it isn’t the entire point of this, but I just wanted to say that men who cross the street at night so I don’t have to worry about their intentions are fucking rock stars. Yay you guys.

  2. Sean McGarragle says:

    You are a very good man Rusty. Ottawa is very lucky to have you. Thanks for being you.

  3. Tammy MacKenzie says:

    Wow… Once again, I am am so happy to know you, Rusty, men like you are the reason why I have NOT given up and given in and manage to find trust for men and, yes, stick up for them. If I didn’t know men like you, I would have given up a long time ago.
    Glad I wasn’t there, I am not well known for keeping my blunt opinions to myself. 😉

  4. JR says:

    You’re my hero. Again and again and again. I had to consciously exhale a few times while reading this.

  5. Juliana Gomez says:


    Thanks for addressing Omar’s poem. I hissed so loud, but maybe due to where I was sitting I wasn’t sure if I was the only one hissing. My favourite thing about slam is that it’s not only a performance but a conversation and it’s really nice to see a crowd calling out a poet on troubling things. We’ve had situations like this happen at KWPS and since we don’t use numbered scoring but comments we’ve found that that is another way that the poets can be held accountable.

    I’ll be honest, I left that night upset and confused that I hadn’t seen/heard any one calling Omar out. It’s nice to read this blog and read that others hissed, that it was noticed, and connect the dots with how your poems aimed to address the hate that was spit.

    Thanks again,


    • rpriske says:

      Thank YOU. I am pretty sure any hissing was due to you initiating it. It is something that isn’t done here, and I (among others) think it should be.

      To MY ear, it doesn’t happen that often, but when it does, usually I hear about people being upset AFTER the show.

  6. Angelica J. says:

    Wow Rusty, I’m so sorry I missed the event! Reading this reacting was unbelievably inspiring though, love men, there are some bad ones for sure too, I’ve dated way many of my share of the duds.. but your words and thoughts here are solid. Thx so much for sharing, knowing some men feel the way that you do makes the persuit worthwhile, still a few needles in the haystack!

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