Jovan Mays, the first-ever poet laureate of Aurora, wants his poetry to capture the voices of the city's people, who first inspired him to write and perform poetry. An Aurora native and graduate of Smoky Hills High School, Mays has been invested in the Aurora community since he was a kid. "We lived in a tiny house next to the old Stapleton airport. Our back yard was planes, our front yard was trains," he laughs.
But what he loved most about growing up in Aurora was the social aspect. His dad delivered bread to grocery stores around town, so everyone knew him and his family. And every time Mays came home from college in Chadron, Nebraska, he found more muses among his Aurora neighbors. "There are so many kinds of people, it's a beautiful balance," he says. "Aurora is a gleam of the original ideal of middle class."
When he returned home for good after college, Mays started performing spoken word and building poetry groups around Denver. In 2010, he joined Slam Nuba's national team, which won the National Poetry Slam Champion in Boston in 2011.
Aurora used to enjoy an active poetry scene, but it started to peter out a few years ago. In January, Aurora's city council unanimously approved a proposal to name Mays its first poet laureate, as a "way of encouraging kids to get into reading, literacy and the spoken word," says Patti Bateman, director of Library and Cultural Services for the City of Aurora.
"My goal is to help students find their voice," says Mays. "Too often, poetry is taken away from kids sometime after second grade, as part of the standard education system."
Today, Mays is an advocate for poetry and spoken word as legitimate modes of expression. "Spoken word is powerful and should be accessible to everyone. Anytime something is written, it's up to interpretation. There's less room for misinterpretation when it's spoken," Mays explains. And he wants to create more opportunities for poets, including an official statewide poetry competition.
"It's not that I just want a bigger army of slam poets," Mays says -- though he'd be okay with that. "I just want people to not be robbed of their ability to express themselves."
Mays runs a poetry program in Denver, and also teaches poetry to groups that include survivors of Columbine and the Aurora theater shootings. "Having a writing portion is so important to the healing process," he says.
But he's also concerned that Aurora doesn't get labeled by such senseless acts of violence. "It's annoying when people define us by the theater shootings," Mays says. "Yeah, it happened, but there's so much more to Aurora."
Including a poet laureate.
A self-described history geek, Mays gets excited about his town's history and culture. He likes the diversity of his community, and the fact that so many minorities achieve success here -- including his parents, who moved to Aurora from New York before he was born.
He also likes Aurora's suburban charm. "Aurora encompasses a gargantuan mass of land. It's bigger than Pittsburgh, yet it doesn't have any buildings over fifteen stories high," he notes. "It's uniquely suburban. It's its own brand.
"I could talk about Aurora all day," he says. But instead, he reads a poem about Aurora, titled "Borealis," that ends with this:
"The Borealis is a mixture of colors filled with mystery, beauty and illusion. No one knows how they come together in such harmony, like an army of flamingoed monarch butterflies armed with lilac, or better yet like hundreds of languages and cultures sharing the sunrise."
You can see Mays perform at Slam Nuba's open mic events, at 7:30 p.m. the first and last Monday of every month at Crossroads Theater. Watch Mays in action in this performance of "Nana's Cages":