Douglas Ridloff started composing poetry in American Sign Language when he was a teenager after a well-known ASL poet named Peter Cook visited his high school. Now he's performing regularly in New York City, in a medium that he says has benefits and nuances that spoken word poetry does not.
“ASL poets can create a complete poem or story by using one handshape to represent a multitude of concepts,” he said. In ASL, Ridloff explained, a single handshape can mean a different word depending on its placement of movement. The handshape for “rooster,” for example, is the same as the handshape for “car.” “Maybe you could compare rhyming or alliteration to that concept, but that’s just something not experienced in spoken English,” Ridloff said.
People who sign ― including ASL poets like Ridloff ― also use facial expressions and other “non-manual markers” to communicate the equivalent of volume or inflection. A head tilt, nod or shake will provide tonal context for the words that are signed, marking the difference between a declarative statement and an inquiry. Raised eyebrows indicate questions; lip movements indicate superlatives. This, he says, contributes to the “spherical” or nonlinear nature of ASL poetry. “Spoken English can be non-linear too, but what it cannot do is exemplify three, four things at the same time,” Ridloff said. So, for him, what began as a passing hobby has evolved into its own unique art form.