Speaking truth through poetic activism

I wonder if the sky gets tired of being everywhere at once, if the sun debates dawn. I wonder if sunrise and sunset respect each other, if rainbows get shy backstage and if the snow wants to be black. I wonder if waves get discouraged, if land feels stepped on or if sand feels insignificant.

CHICAGO — As these beautifully written words speak to the audience, Naima Penniman, 24, poetically captures her listeners. Naima and Alixa Garcia, 24, are weaving their words as a spoken word duo called “Climbing PoeTree” during a performance on this city’s South Side.

Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., Alixa and Naima are teaching truth through their powerful spoken word acts, headlining shows across the country on their second national tour called “Migration.” Their mission: to use art “to expose injustice, heal from violence, and generate vision to help us all imagine a more just and compassionate world.”

They spoke to the World during their recent visit to Chicago.

As artistic and social activists, they deliver their revolutionary, “firearm poetry” through single and two-voiced presentations that explore diverse themes like state and personal violence, civil rights and racism, sexuality, immigration and the African Diaspora, the drug war, mass imprisonment, global politics and women’s empowerment.

Their web site sheds further light on their credo: “Creativity is the antidote for violence and destruction. Art is our most human expression, our voice to communicate our stories, to challenge injustice and misrepresentations of mainstream media, to expose harsh realities and engender even more powerful hope, a force to bring diverse peoples together, a tool to rebuild our communities, and a weapon to win this struggle for universal liberation.”

Both Alixa and Naima come from politically active backgrounds. In addition to their performances, they also co-teach poetry workshops to prisoners and young people through the East Harlem Tutorial Program, the Youth Leadership Project of the Incarcerated Mothers Program, and the New York public schools.

Alixa, who was born in Colombia, said her first love as a child was roller-skating. Naima, originally from Massachusetts, remembers a childhood that included making music with pots and pans, puppet shows and doing dance routines. Both liked to climb trees, hence the name of their web site, climbingpoetree.com.

The two women met in May 2002, yet feel they have known each other all their lives.

Inspired by her hardworking abuelita (grandmother), Alixa wants people to “do what you dream, and put intention behind your dream, so that the universe will conspire to make sure that it happens. Just do what’s passionate so that you can grow letting yourself shine and be powerful.” Naima also draws inspiration from her grandmother, an organizer, activist and artist who serves as her role model.

At a performance at the Spoken Word Café on Chicago’s South Side, Alixa and Naima expressed how freedom comes from within: “Don’t let them cut out your tongue, women, self love is not found in another, you are that diamond,” they said in the interplay of their words. Naima went on to say, “The free things in life are the best things. Deep is the hunger, go on and get it.”

Alixa explained to the audience how she encountered stories in Pittsburgh about police corruption, criminalization of youth and brutality, and the impact they had on her art.

After the very inspiring set, Jeanine Holmes, a 35-year-old artist and fan, told the World, “These are young gifted beautiful women who make me want to do something. They are educators telling their stories and I’m really glad I know them.”

On their coast-to-coast tour, Alixa and Naima are also collecting stories, giving the audience a chance to share their experiences, their feelings, confessions and testimonies. People are asked to write on colorful individual cloths that will later be stitched together, “cross-pollinating stories and manifestos to cover the White House with a new American flag of justice.”

They are also involved with a collective of artists and activists working in collaboration with prisoners across the U.S. to create a portable mural called the Prison Poster Project. The idea is to use an intricate collage of images explaining how the criminal justice system affects people, families and communities.

“We will expose some of the myths that sustain widespread injustices in prisons and in the communities most affected by mass imprisonment, and most importantly, we will inspire and motivate people to take positive action against the system of mass incarceration and for prisoners’ human and civil rights,” they write on their web site. Visitors to the site will also find how to order their “Ammunition CD,” poetry books and even their own designer shirts.

“Art is a weapon, a tool in the struggle, our songs will never die, it’s up to us. Become the change you wish to see,” Naima told the World.