A magazine for Africans and friends of Africa...Our Voices, Our Vision, Our Culture

The Mic is Mightier than the Sword
By Nana Nkweti

So much more than writers of pretty words, poets have long been the oracles defining the values of their time. For poets of color in particular, the métier has been a platform to voice their political ethos and advocate change.

Négritude and the Black Arts Movement sprang from the political consciousness of 1930s anti-colonial African and 1960s pro-Black power African-American poets respectively. Négritude-founded by poet and future Senegalese president Léopold Sédar Senghor- embraced an authentic African aesthetic as a counterpoint to French colonial racism. Thirty years later the Black Arts Movement- founded by Amiri Baraka- would also encourage Blacks to self-sufficiency and self-love.

Following in the tradition of these politically charged African and Diaspora artistic movements, the spoken word duo, Climbing Poetree, raise their poetic voices in protest. Alixa Garcia and Naima Penniman's collective roots in Haiti and Columbia have made them well aware of the plight of disenfranchised peoples and they have dedicated themselves and their art to revolution. To form the group, they left their jobs and lives behind, Naima- fresh from studying creative arts and social change at Sarah Lawrence and Alixa- working with the drug addicted homeless population, packed all their belongings into a car and began a six-month spoken word tour. Since that fateful beginning they have performed on more than 500 stages from South Africa to Cuba with artists such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, Danny Glover and Dead Prez. They have also led art workshops in institutions from Cornell University to Riker's Island.

With National Poetry Month in the offing, The AFRican chatted with Naima (pictured, right) about poetry's place in provoking a political awakening. She spoke:

On how poetry can be a force for political change. . .

"It's very much our words that shape the world we live in. And I think that poets have a very important role in changing the narrative because when you start looking at who's telling the stories-from history books to the media, from prime time to headlines- the stories are being told by the power elite and it's very much a monopoly on the information we receive. And so I feel like poets have a very important role in offering new information- both by telling our own personal stories just to like inject some humanity into it (laughs) -just the language that encircles our existence. And also in keeping our community alive- poetry really does nurture at the very spiritual level. That's performance time- that's us alive. We feel a lot-poetry moves us- and it's important that we're reminded of that part of us that is able to be shifted and to be moved. You know what I'm saying? I think that's really our role is just kinda like keeping people sparked and waking people up. And people who are already awake- reminding them and giving them the fuel to keep doing what they're doing."

On the nascence of Climbing Poetree's shared political agenda. . .

"I had been doing prison activism for a long time but that year [2002] I was actually going into a women's facility each week and teaching poetry workshops with the women inside. It was a very intense experience you can imagine all the things that the poetry excavated. I felt like I had a couple of dozen sisters on the inside and I was very f#&ked up about my experience going into the jails and I was thinking about stuff on a more personal level. At that same time Alixa returned to her homeland of Columbia for the first time in eight years. In this context she was going back and doing political work around Plan Columbia which is a US backed program that is part of the drug war. Under the guise of the war on drugs- everybody was militarizing southern Columbia and fumigating-spreading poison on the land. A lot of people were getting sick and dying. The land was suffering. It's like a really excessive militarized state right now.

It had been for awhile and Alixa had been learning about that-knowing about that- but going down there and seeing first hand the effects of the drug war on her country was really devastating. Her home coming was really heartbreaking. When she came back in the first year of us knowing each other- we were processing. Processing our various experiences we were realizing how much- needless to say- particularly around this issue of the drug war- how there are very parallel realities between what's going on here in the States in terms of the drug war being responsible for mass incarceration here- effecting people from our neighborhoods. So many prisons we can't even count. And also like the criminalization of poor and brown folk in Columbia for their means of survival too which has little to do with the drug war and much more to do with how to get into that oil and mineral rich land by displacing the indigenous people and the farm people of Columbia. Just going through the process of identifying this common enemy was quite empowering. All of a sudden in our isolated stories we could see the bigger picture."

On the poem Being Human and how the personal becomes political. . .

"That particular piece I wrote- I actually wrote it in a workshop I was doing with my high school students in the Bronx. And it just came. A lot of times poems just come- it's not like I have a particular agenda. It's just like sometimes I'm in labor and the poem just is born and I'm just like trying to get out of its way. But kind of conceptually on that level- I feel like it's a cliché but the personal is the political. And I feel like the moments when I'm able to read chapters from my experience and tell my story it can be the most political and the most universal. It's like that even space within us where we meet the world- you know. Our most personal poems-even like our love poems end up talking about the revolution and the most political poems end up coming really close to home. So we always try to blur that line. And you know it's a big difference from some kind of propaganda art that's just trying to push some cause. It's really about us saying what we know to be true. Speaking our truth and telling our story and being very clear that that's what we're doing."

On hope. . .

"We end up talking about a lot of problems just because we live in a very critical- kind of crisis moment we've been born into. And our poetry reflects that but every poem that we spit we want to leave people hopeful- like that's really what we feel the purpose is. And more than hope cuz hope almost sounds like 'Oh I wish- I hope I can.' It's like knowing. It's like trusting in change and transformation and also taking accountability and taking the courage to be part of that and being the change you wish to see in the world. So every poem that we spit is really like a call for self-love and a call to action. And absolutely optimistic- we're really trying to spread the good news."

Naima calls their upcoming two-woman show Hurricane Season: The Hidden Messages in Water -"the most landmark undertaking of our career slamming poetry." Combining many of their passions- this multi-media production will include everything from poetry, music, video, shadow puppetry, beat boxing, dance to sound collages.

The show will examine "unnatural disaster and a great shift in universal consciousness" through the lens of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath while tackling issues like environmental racism, global warming, and core potential over public policy. Yet even in the midst of these seemingly insurmountable odds there is a note of hope and optimism in their politics.

"The focus of the show is really about solutions," said Naima. "We recognize that this is a time to build and a real time to talk about alternatives. We're making this show a really coordinated national action strategy where we're pulling people from all different struggles and movements together to really start talking about how we can help each other recognize our power to make change and take control over the time- over this transformational moment we're moving into."

"Let our creativity be the antidote to the destruction that's going on." For more information on Climbing Poetree visit their website OR their myspace page.