American sign language on stage

Songs, poems, stories and speeches are created with words, the main ingredient for the Verses Festival in Vancouver this year. The Verses Festival of Words celebrates the power of oral and literary art forms to encourage diversity and inclusion.

The festival has its roots in 2011 as the Vancouver International Poetry Festival, where the first official Canadian Individual Poetry Slam Championship took place. The second year, the festival shifted to its present name, after community consultation.

Building on 2014 success

The 2014 version of the festival invited Alex Lu to open up a conversation about accessibility. This term often brings to our minds the idea of people with difficulties carrying out everyday routines. In this case Alex is deaf, but this only made the conversation more interesting.

Lu is a computational biology student at the University of Western Ontario and identifies himself as “queer, Chinese-Canadian and Deaf.” He balances his days between scientific research to be able to speed up the protocols of diagnosis and quality of life for people with all kinds of disabilities and his artistic pursuits.

Lu says he enjoys both science and the arts with equal passion, and declares he could not chose one over the other. He is the director-at-large for the Frank Theatre Company, the largest queer theatre company on the West Coast, and also the accessibility director for the British Rainbow Alliance of the Deaf (BCRAD).

Alex Lu and co-cordinator Maggie Harkins will be signing the ASL Showcase. | Photo by Ruth Javier

Alex Lu and co-cordinator Maggie Harkins will be signing the ASL Showcase. | Photo by Ruth Javier

Signs of poetry

In addition, Lu has been working closely for the last two months with the Verses Festival’s art director Jillian Christmas to put signed poetry on stage. This is a space where deaf artists can express their feelings in an innovative way. Proving that there is always room for improvement and inclusion, the festival is providing the American Sign Language (ASL) community a window to show their talents.

“I think ASL poetry really has the ability to challenge these conceptions, because it’s a unique artform that stems from Deaf culture, both of which can’t really be gauged with hearing/able-bodied valued,” says Lu.

Lu hopes that the performance can provide audiences with a better understanding of the rich culture shared by Deaf people.

“The point I’m trying to drive [home] by presenting ASL poetry to a larger audience is that I want to expose people to the unique culture behind disability – yes, having a disability can sometimes be a challenge, but it’s also an incredibly rich source of human experience and culture for many,” Lu says.

The work put into this production will be seen on May 2 at the Havana Theater at 3 p.m. The 2015 Verses Festival of Words will be the fifth annual festival organized by Vancouver Poetry House. The dates include 34 shows, talks and more. The festival takes place from April 23–May 3 at various venues clustered around East Vancouver’s Commercial Drive, with a mission to inspire and introduce works that include page-based poetry, spoken word, oral storytelling and singer-songwriters.

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