Arts professor brings acclaimed Deaf poets to campus with ‘Eye Music’ festival

poster for Eye Music ASL festival at UC Santa Cruz
UC Santa Cruz Professor of Music Larry Polansky
UC Santa Cruz Professor of Music Larry Polansky

Nationally renowned Deaf poets and performing artists are coming to UC Santa Cruz for Eye Music--a four-day festival created and performed in American Sign Language (ASL).

Running from November 12-15, the festival will feature poetry and stories by some of the country’s most accomplished practitioners of ASL performance.

The festival is curated by UC Santa Cruz Professor of Music Larry Polansky, who has collaborated with some of the best-known poets, performers, and educators in the ASL world.

So how exactly does Deaf poetry work?

“Deaf poetry works more or less like any other poetry, except it is visual, visceral and kinetic, which makes it particularly exciting to watch,” Polansky explained.

"It uses words and images evoked through language in non-everyday sorts of ways…creative, beautiful ways. Formal ideas, ‘rhymes,’ repetitive themes, use of space, rhythm, narrative surprises--all these things can be expressed in ASL just as other poetic techniques are used in English or any other spoken/written language.”

“One major difference is that ASL poetry is a performance medium, and it is rarely, if ever, written down--ASL is not a written language,” he added. “So this opportunity to see it performed live is truly a rare situation.”

Highlights of the festival include a performance by Flying Words Project, an ASL poetry duo comprised of Deaf poet Peter Cook and hearing co-author Kenny Lerner on Saturday, November 15, beginning at 7:30 p.m. in the Digital Arts Research Center (DARC). Their poems are uniquely accessible to both hearing and deaf audiences.

The "grandfather of ASL poetry" Patrick Graybill appears as part of the Creative Writing Program’s Living Writers Series on Thursday, November 13, at 4 p.m. in the Humanities Lecture Hall. A former member of the National Theater of the Deaf, Graybill will perform his poems, as well as engage in an interpreted Q & A session with the audience.

The Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History will also host “Eye Music at the MAH, a full evening of ASL performances in downtown Santa Cruz on Friday, November 14, at 7:30 p.m.

“These poets/performers/scholars are brilliant, funny, insightful, passionate, knowledgeable, tough-as-nails, and ready for anything,” said Polansky. “They will really blow everyone’s mind.”

Polansky recently joined the UC Santa Cruz Arts Division faculty in 2013. He said he became interested in ASL because “as a composer, I became fascinated by the fact that music is sound with no meaning, and ASL is meaning with no sound.” He has since studied ASL for a number of years, including performance and teaching techniques.

“There are a lot of vibrant communities in the Bay Area, so this festival is a way of bringing some major Deaf artists and scholars from around here and other parts of the country to share their wisdom, art, and experience with us,” Polansky noted.

“Also, since I’m deeply connected with the music world, I see it as a way of introducing interesting creative people to other interesting creative people they might otherwise not have the opportunity to meet. It’s a great chance for non-Deaf (hearing) and Deaf people to have an artistic experience together.”

“Maybe the hearing part of the audience will take away a desire to learn this rich and beautiful language,” he added. “At the very least they’ll have a new awareness of an important American art form that to most is invisible, as well as inaudible.”

All events in the Eye Music festival are free and open to the public, interpreted and accessible to Deaf and non-Deaf audiences. For more information and the full schedule of events, visit the festival web site or email