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. Fast forward 10 years, and he hadn’t done much in the way of slam poetry apart from a little dabbling. But then a friend of his invited him to an informal gathering of college students, where ASL was used to respond to challenges and prompts.
“I wasn’t interested in the first place,” Ridloff said in an interview with HuffPost. “At that time I only did ASL poetry and storytelling for fun at parties and backyard gatherings. The host who was also my friend dragged me to go to ASL Slam for the first few times, and I was sitting in the back at the bar chatting with other people and watching some performances and attempts on stage.”
Over time, he began joining in when there were gaps in performances. Gradually, he started paying more attention to the host’s approach to the craft, and began incorporating it into his own routine.
“Boom,” Ridloff said. “I found a home.”
That was in 2005, when a now-monthly gathering called ASL Slam was first founded. The show was co-hosted by ASL poets Bob Arnold and Jason Norman at the Bowery Poetry Club in New York City, where it still takes place today. Only now, Ridloff is the host.
Ridloff says ASL Slam is mostly composed of performers from the deaf community, including native deaf individuals like himself. This marks a significant change from the program’s early years, when ASL students and others who use sign, but who are not deaf, made up a majority of the participants.
Attendees are also likely to be people who sign, as Ridloff prefers not to have his work translated into English.
“The beauty is lost,” he said. “Think of music. If a song had its lyrics removed but the melody remains, the mood is still there, but something is lost. Or if the melody is removed but the lyrics remain, sometimes the song no longer makes sense.”
The show has gone on tour to Michigan and Austin, and overseas to France. Earlier this year, ASL Slam visited Cuba, to work closely with members of the deaf community there who are interested in creative expression.
“It was amazing to see how fast they got it and created something fresh for the audience,” Ridloff said. “They are about 50 years behind in sign language literacy. Just like the cars.”
Meanwhile, Ridloff is now 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,” Ridoff said.
So, for him, what began as a passing hobby has evolved into its own unique art form.