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How Climbing PoeTree's Alixa Garcia Uses Poetry -- and Vegetable Oil -- as a Vehicle for Social Justice

First Posted: Mar 26, 2015 05:00 AM EDT
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This article is part of Palabras, the Latin Post Latino Author Series. 

Colombia is a part of professional poet Alixa Garcia's upbringing. It's a part of her family, her roots and her ancestry. But, she was also intermittently raised in North America, so asking her where she's from can be a bit tricky. Her rearing in both war-torn Colombia and the socially imbalanced U.S. offered her two drastic realities, opening her eyes to a global perspective, and what it meant to "be an active human on earth." The genre-breeching creative also discovered her identity as a world citizen.

Garcia is the co-founder of the award-winning performance spoken word poetry duo Climbing PoeTree, alongside best friend Naima Penniman. Together, the two multifaceted artists use their creative talents as poets, speakers, print makers, graphic designers, film makers, hip hop artists and dancers to educate and teach social justice on a national and international level. Also, the professional poets collaboratively created a poetry anthology by the same name, "Climbing PoeTree," to continue that work.

Writing began at an early age for Garcia. One day, during her second residency in Colombia, she awoke with an incredible love poem for Jerusalem. She didn't know why. She'd never been there and she maintains a pro-Palestine stance, but it was something about the land itself that compelled her to write a poem. So she wrote it, and later proudly presented it to her teacher, who refused to believe that Garcia had written it. And while that refusal didn't leave her totally dejected, she put that writing away and didn't write again for years. That changed, however, when she returned to the United States years later.

"When I was back in the United States, as a 17-year-old, I went to a coffee shop with a friend of mine, just hoping to get some hot cocoa ... and there was a poetry slam happening. I didn't know what a poetry slam was, but throughout the evening I was more and more blown away," Garcia said during an interview with Latin Post. "I went home extremely inspired, and I wrote two poems. Those were the first two poems I'd written since I was a child, and I was just hell bent on performing them the following Sunday. I amped myself, saying "If you don't do it now, you won't ever do it. So, you have to do it, you have to do it. And I went the following Sunday to I signed up for the open mic."

When Garcia arrived the following Sunday, there were two pages in front of her: the one for open mic and one for the slam. Still unclear about what a poetry slam was (she thought slam in the phrase poetry slam was synonymous with 'kaboom' or 'wham'), so wrote her name on the bottom of the page marked 'slam.' As her time to approach the stage came close, her nerves rattled her, but she went to the stage when her name was called. She read her work, and was asked to return to the stage for a second round. She ended up winning the poetry slam that day.

"I won the slam and I got really excited, and I just kept coming weekly. It was my church, it was my religion. And because I'd won that slam ... I was ready to participate in the collective slam team chosen to represent my city in a national competition. Months later, I won the regionals, and I got to represent my city at nationals," said Garcia. "It was one thing after another. It was the year that changed my whole life. I transformed from not writing at all, to performing in front of hundreds of people on a national platform. It was beautiful, and it that propelled me into creative writing."

Then, Penniman and Garcia began to write together, and they thrived on a philosophy of art being a powerful weapon to chop at oppression, and with it they showed transglobal solidarity. They focused on creating cultural cosmology and they like to do so at any level, performing at Harvard University or Rikers Island, for 20 people in a community center or 16,000 people in a concert hall.

With their work, they browse the intersectionality of street violence, displacement, environmental injustice and the prison industrial complex, at times featuring a gender and class focus. Both, the intersections of oppression and, more importantly, the intersections of liberation are explored. They address violence faced at home, the destruction of land and the exploitation of resources. And they bridge poetry, hip hop and theater to get at conflict, and they do so in an environmentally conscious way.

"It's really important to not just talk about the problems and get bogged down by them, but to really highlight the really incredible work that people are doing internationally and locally. The last theater production that we created was called 'Hurricane Season: the Hidden Messages in Water,' and it was taken to 50 cities across the United States," Garcia said. "We converted a bus to run on recycled vegetable oil, and travelled 11,000 miles on vegetable grease. It's very important for us to act upon the things that we preach. We also want to figure out ways to reinvent ourselves and push the envelope in our own communities a little bit farther. With that production, we travelled with 200 people, and we used only recycled materials. Every poster, every pamphlet was on 100 percent recycled paper. And we felt that our book aligned itself with what we were saying."

Climbing PoeTree also created a national organizing strategy, which involved highlighting local solutions in every city they visited on their tour. As a response to the question, How can I sign up for the revolution? Climbing PoeTree offers the stage to community organizations for 15 minutes, so communities can get involved on a local level. Garcia and Penniman did research prior to reaching a city to know what's going on in community, so they could connect people to the proper channels. And it works. More than 200 organizations have been featured.

Garcia's sci-fi story, which focuses on environmental injustice, street violence, displacement, migration, slavery, titled "In Spite of Darkness," will be included in the upcoming anthology "Octavia's Brood." "Hurricane Season," Climbing PoeTree's most production, has been transformed into curriculum for high school and college students. And it will use multimedia, hip-hop, poetry, animation and research as a guideline for lessons, which address systems of oppression. Also, in addition to writing and performing, Garcia is completing a project titled "Shadow-boxing," which involves three dimensional boxes with motion-sensor. Each individual light box is inspired by stories she's collected from one of 33 undocumented, first generation queer immigrants.

The Climbing PoeTree website features writing by Garcia and Penniman, including Garcia's poems "Box Breaker," "An Outcry for Tajeme" and "For the Courageous." Also, the website features upcoming tour dates and their albums "Heart Led Rebellion" and "Ammunition."

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