ASL Poetry

Every language has art forms centered around it (poetry, music, etc) and ASL is no exception. This post will dive into popular styles and devices used in ASL poetry. Many thanks to Kenneth Lerner, at RIT for interviewing, teaching, and sharing poetry resources!

Poetic Devices 

Speed changes can be used for emphasis and dramatic effect.  Keep an eye on the rhythm and way the poem’s pace changes throughout and see how that impacts the piece.

Eye gaze: If you’re watching a poem, take note of where the poet is looking.  They can change meaning, focus, or to emphasize certain details.

Rhyme and alliteration are repetitions of handshapes or movements to create a pattern.

Zooming is a shift from a far away image to a close up visual or vice versa.

Visual Vernacular refers to the poet playing more than one role in the piece.  This can be shown with a shoulder tilt or looking up or down for a change in perspective.  With “VV,” poets can portray clear interactions among characters.

Much like film, transitions from one topic/scene to the next in poetry can be simple, complex, smooth, or abrupt.  Transitions can bring you from looking at a magazine to being inside of a picture, as Peter Cook and Kenneth Lerner show at 3:07  in the below poem, “Soft Boiled Egg”.


ABC Stories are a traditional style of ASL storytelling/poetry.  Essentially, you use each letter in the alphabet as a handshape in the story, starting with A. There are different patterns of the alphabet used to bring a little variety into this tradition.  Below, see Douglas Ridloff performing an ABC story about boxing.



A few more examples of ASL poets:

Douglass Ridloff 

Peter Cook

Debbie Rennie

Patrick Graybill

Cicely Boga ( HERE she translates a Maya Angelou poem into ASL!)

Sean Berdy

and many more!



Many cities host ASL poetry nights. Rochester, NY hosts Roc That! monthly, and ASL Slam travels among NYC, Denver, Boston, and other cities.   Busboys and Poets in DC is an ASL open mic hosted every month. Check your local resources (like Deaf Clubs) to see if you have an ASL show in the area.


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– Sign Language Blitz


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