When they planned their Uniting the State of the Americas tour in 2003, performance poets Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman laid out a map of the United States, drew an infinity symbol from coast to coast and planned their itinerary accordingly. The Brooklyn-based duo, known as Climbing poeTree, traveled down the East Coast, diagonally back up and across the Midwest, down the West Coast and again diagonally back to the Northeast, and finally home, carving a symbolic path around the country.
"We left what we owned and went on the road," Garcia said in a phone interview last week, as she and Penniman were packing to hit the road once again. "During that tour, it became evident how important it was for us to be doing this work."
The work she's referring to is using poetry to educate people about causes that relate to them - in this case, the war on drugs. Garcia comes from Medellin, Colombia, where she worked to educate indigenous people about the fumigation of coca fields as part of the U.S.-backed Plan Colombia. She was just 17 years old when she came to the U.S.
The poems she was writing - about being an immigrant, the situation in Colombia, women's issues, the beauty of life and "the upliftment of it all" - fit the format well, so she got into slam poetry. She even went to the national competition once and appeared on HBO's Def Poetry, but she didn't like the ego that drives that scene. "It wasn't where my heart was," she says. So she dropped out of the competitive world.
A couple of years later, working in a barn in rural Massachusetts, she met Penniman, and they discovered mutual interests in poetry, art and dance, as well as similar political concerns. Penniman had taught in a women's prison in New York. Most of the women she met were incarcerated for petty drug offenses. Penniman and Garcia both were brokenhearted by what they'd seen of the drug war - particularly, the growth of a prison system through criminalization and damage to Colombian farmland through crop-dusting with toxic chemicals. So they decided to use poetry for popular education and to motivate people to take action that would relate to their own lives.
There's a lot to be gleaned about Climbing poeTree from the fact that Penniman and Garcia would plan a tour by drawing an infinity symbol on a map. The ambitious performers, self-described as a "Brooklyn-based soul-sister conspiracy of arts and activism," are not much interested in limits. They see no reason not to make plans based on symbolism. And being self-organized, they're not bound by anyone else's logic or strategy.
Building tours around multimedia performance pieces, Penniman and Garcia have turned the long tradition of activist political poetry into a kind of sociopolitical tent-revival circuit, with inspiring words, music, art and dance, and invitations to local activist groups for post-performance informative sessions.
Revolution, to them, percolates from the grassroots as naturally as the movement of planets and stars. In her poem "Being Human," Penniman rhetorically wonders, "… if the sun debates dawn/some mornings/not wanting to rise/out of bed/from under the down-feather horizon." Or, in a two-word translation, "rise up."
"We peacemakers need to step up to the plate," says Garcia. "Where is our army? What can we do so our kids don't have to experience massive drought in 20 years or no fresh air at all in 100 years, or have to walk around wearing bulletproof vests because the more we dwindle our resources, the more we are going to have to fight for them?"
Their current show, Hurricane Season: The Hidden Messages in Water, was two years in the making, most of that time spent on research. "I can't remember the last time I read a poem," says Garcia. "[Hurricane Season] deals with what happened post-Katrina, with regard to land rights, housing rights and gentrification. Because it's poetry, you can digest all that information. You can put a whole paragraph in a line. It's like, who's getting paid to come in here and rebuild? Is it local people or is it developers? It's developers who want to build casinos and want to build mixed-income buildings, and bring a lot of people with money and means to move there, and displace people from where they had homes. The research was heartbreaking."
The result is a kind of multimedia, poetic news. Accompanying video includes both original and other people's documentary interviews, which illustrate the content of the poems. There's also a recorded soundtrack and dance. Climbing poeTree began touring Hurricane Season in Philadelphia on August 29, and by the new year, the duo will have performed it in 50 cities - reaching them all on a tour bus that runs on recycled vegetable oil. "It's about both informing people and motivating," says Garcia. "We can't give people all this information without a way to do something if they are moved to. After every show, we have a solution session, where we've invited people to speak on what it is that they can do in their community." For the Cleveland performance, participating groups include City Fresh, Peace in the Hood and Metro Youth Outreach.
As far as Garcia is concerned, we've reached a point where inaction on social-justice issues is no longer acceptable. "You want to be on the fence?" she asks. "I'm sorry, your time has run out. There is no time to be on the fence. You have to choose which way you are going to go."