Deaf Poets Society

When I think of poetry, two things come to mind. One: my angsty junior-high days, when any heartache or misfortune became immortalized in the pages of my Mead five-section college-rule notebook. Two: Emily Dickinson. To all the poets and true poetry fans out there, I apologize for my embarrassingly shallow knowledge and perception of this field. However, you’ll be pleased to hear that my awareness and appreciation of poetry doubled yesterday thanks to Maya Washington.

Washington grew up in Plymouth, graduated from Wayzata High School, and made the most of many of the stages around the Twin Cities: Youth Performance Company, Guthrie Theater, Pillsbury House, History Theatre, Penumbra Theatre. She followed her love of acting to Los Angeles for her undergraduate education, majoring in, what else?, theater. She returned to Minnesota to get her master’s degree in creative writing from Hamline University in 2006. Degree in hand, she headed back to the West Coast (something about long winters…) and started working as a motivational speaker in L.A. in addition to acting.

What does any of this have to do with poetry? Her movie. In the spring of 2010, Washington realized that while she was giving students great advice to put their passion into action, she wasn’t living her life that way. One night, she had a dream about a deaf poet walking the streets of L.A., performing—in sign language. “I’ve had ideas for plays, poems, scripts, and characters come to me in dreams before,” she told me as we enjoyed a little early-spring sunshine on Nicollet Mall yesterday afternoon, “but this was the first time an idea for a film came to me. So, I went with it.”

Thanks to her work as an actress, Washington had quite a few contacts in the film industry. She started rounding them up—a cameraman here, a TV writer there—and soon, the film had taken on a life of its own. “It grew bigger than any of us anticipated—and fast,” she said.

Once things started falling into place, Washington set up a crowd-funding website in order to raise the $10,000 she needed to pay the actors, interpreters, and crew members. Then, she put out a casting call through the Greater Los Angeles Agency on Deafness (GLAD), and soon had cast many of Hollywood’s most talented deaf actors, poets, and comedians (Ryan Lane, CJ Jones, Zendrea Mitchell) for the movie. White Space was born.

Inception to presentation took less than a year, and this spring, the 10-minute-long film about a deaf performance poet (Ryan Lane) making his open-mic night debut for a hearing audience will be playing at 11 film festivals across the world, including the Minneapolis–St. Paul International Film Festival.

But Washington’s vision is more than just the movie. It’s also a poetry anthology: a collection of poetry, creative non-fiction, and art using literal or metaphorical “white space” to connect to thoughts and ideas.

“‘White space’ is the space between the lines,” Washington says. “In poems, it can be how you arrange words on a page. For our project, it represents the space between spoken language and sign language—the middle ground of communication.”

Together, the film and anthology expose the work of deaf performers and artists to the hearing world, illuminating the poetry, ideas, and talent we, the average hearing audience member, don’t regularly encounter. Or, as Washington puts it, “It’s art beyond entertainment; message-driven and impactful.”

It’s also the beginning of a movement; an effort that brings together two worlds that are similar yet separate, breaking down barriers and educating everyone on just how beautiful—and diverse—poetry can really be.

White Space will be screened at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Film Festival Thursday, April 29, 7 p.m.
St. Anthony Main Theatre, 115 SE Main St., Mpls., 612-331-4723