Assetou Xango is a poet, community activist, documentary filmmaker, teacher, and mentor born and raised in Denver, CO. A recent speaker at It’s About Time, she has founded poetry venues in Denver and San Francisco, as well as a storytelling venue.

As a member of Deadly Pens and SpeakOut, she has performed her poetry worldwide and was also featured on HBO with Denver’s world renowned youth team in 2010. Here we talk about the healing power of honest expression and laughing in the sun.

You’ve established poetry venues in San Francisco and Denver: two cities with rich literary histories. What sets Denver apart?

Denver is the Mecca for poetry. What sets it apart is both personal and international. I started in Denver’s poetry scene when I was 17 and was raised by the community. It’s international because Denver has one of the top ranking poetry scenes in the world. We are a consistent presence on final stages and the ideal home place for many prestigious poets. San Francisco may be the birthplace of beat poetry, but no one does spoken word like Denver. Spoken word [is] the core community building tool of our ancestors; we crave that ancestral voice, and you can hear it echo in any Denver poetry venue you choose.

Many Americans are reluctant to face our country’s racial issues head-on. How can poetry help?

The beauty of poetry is its ability to turn something insurmountable into something digestible without watering down its original potency. The issues we face as a county are difficult to look at straight on. Poetry can create a metaphor, comparing something as large as racial discrimination to something commonplace, something small that can be looked at from all sides. Also, the spoken word scene is one of the only places for the voices of marginalized people. These spaces are imperative [for] honest and full discussions of race politics. The placement of people of color in the hierarchy allows us to see clearly the full issues because not only are we aware of our disposition, but we also must be aware of other’s placement for the purpose of survival. This is what makes poetry and more importantly, the community of poets, so vital to difficult but necessary discussions of our world.

Do you have separate allegiances as a poet, as a woman, and as a person of color, or are these facets of who you are interconnected?

There is very little choice in this. I cannot be partial to only one facet of my identity because these identities are outwardly defined. I am only a woman or black in relation to someone who is not. These are social identities, cultural labels that I have not chosen. Therefore, I have no choice of allegiance because as these labels have been applied to me from without, so has the treatment related to them; both independently and through their intersectionality. In this way, my being a poet or woman or black, seems to be in response to my environment. I write poetry mainly for the empowerment of women of color; I would not do so if my surroundings did not dictate the need.

Do you feel optimistic about the future of humanity?

I think that humanity, like everything else, is cyclical. My short answer is: yes, I am optimistic for the future of all species, but not because I think things will get better and all of our problems will be solved. I believe things will get both better and worse in tandem, as they always have. For example, the moment we achieved civil rights for homosexuals in [individual] states, we, as a nation became aware of the injustices suffered daily by trans and gender nonconforming people. Light will always cast a shadow, the greater the light, the deeper the shadow. Yin and Yang, that sort of thing. We are constantly in a state of improvement and deterioration. I believe this to be the law of nature. We can see it in everything. The older I get, the wiser (improvement) and closer to death (deterioration) I get. I believe you can follow either thread in almost anything you can think of. I am comfortable with this balance. The question could be begged, “With such a belief, why try to change things at all?” I guess I look at it as a sacred game. I have a responsibility to attempt to improve my environment but only because I signed up to play this game. A game that has no ending but needs participants. There is value in it, but only because I have chosen to enjoy it, not because of any presumed destination.

Do you have a favorite TED talk or performance?

My favorite TEDx talks have to be the ones done by my friends and fellow poets: Toluwanimi Obiwole, Theo Wilson, Ken Arkind, Bobby Lefebre and on and on.

What’s the last thing that made you laugh uncontrollably?

I think I was outside laying in the sun imagining it was filling my womb with light and warmth and that the earth was my afro and the sun was the roots in my feet stretching up through my body. This image, this feeling, filled me with so much joy I couldn’t help but laugh uncontrollably. Yeah, I am a flower child.