After nearly three years as the city of Aurora’s first official master of verse, Jovan Mays is soon headed for different, lyrical pastures. Mays, who was tabbed to become the city’s first-ever poet laureate in 2014, will end his tenure as official city ambassador of verse in January.
But before slipping quietly into that good night, we caught up with the 30-year-old Smoky Hill High School graduate at his old academic haunt to chat about the evolution of his hometown, the connotations that come with being a professional poet, and how Lauryn Hill is still just so damn good.
Do you remember how you felt when you found out that you were going to be named the city’s first-ever poet laureate?
I think the constant fear of a spoken word artist is that you will be invalidated. So, I did have registered fear that I may not get the gig. But, when I got the call, from a hometown space, it was very validating.
What were you doing at that time in 2014 other than writing and performing poetry?
Oh same stuff — my program in the schools, ‘Your Writing Counts,’ I was definitely real deep into that. I was directing the organization Slam Nuba, trying to get the poetry Slam to a place to be more successful. That was my drive at that point in time. I was also a competing member. That year was a good one because we made it onto the National Poetry Slam finals stage. After that, some recalibration took place to fulfill the poet laureate position more prominently.
What is the biggest accomplishment you’ll take away from serving as the city’s first poet laureate? On the contrary, is there anything you’re disappointed you weren’t able to see to fruition?
I’m definitely most proud of the work. I think that I understood poetry as an occasion prior to this, but I definitely did not understand how to write commission-based poetry. So filling in those events in a proud way was definitely an element that I take a lot of pride in.
I’d also say carrying the position through all sorts of different places was also a big point of pride with me. You have to muscle your way through a very elitist, English world. So, to even have Aurora in that space and then rep Aurora the way that I want to rep Aurora, that was a big thing to attack this process with; not trying to focus myself on all of the super bright, sun-shiny parts of the city. There is grit and grind inside the city that I wanted to make sure I was calling a lot of attention to. And I think I was able to achieve that.
I’m also real proud of Write Aurora. I think that it’s been pretty cool to see people come out in the city and get to interact in more of a written way. And things have just continued with the Cherry Creek School District poetry slam, and work of that sort around the metro.
I think Aurora Public Schools really is a tough thing to break into. I certainly thought that the poet laureate position would have the leverage to make that happen. I think that’s going to be integral to develop, regardless of who the next poet laureate is — making sure that relationship is built and sustained. That’s something that I’ll probably hold as a regret — not being a little bit more aggressive and not trying to make that relationship happen the way that I wanted it to happen.
What kind of reactions do you get when you tell people that you’re a poet laureate?
I think there are a lot of generational differences. And what’s interesting is that for folks who came from my parents era and before, poetry is a nice, strong staple of their education. But I think that it’s important to note that there’s been a real shift in the greater poetry world with its audience. Its audience is not a majority of Falutin’-based, high-literature followers. But this isn’t a new thing. This is definitely before I ever touched a stage. There were open mics in Aurora, Colorado that were super-blessed with fantastic, African-American presence here; real black, proud presence that was here before I came along. So, just the sight-line of a person like me being a poet was not a surprise.
The term ‘laureate’ takes things into a different casing. And I think ‘laureate’ connotes upright, straight-spined types of things. That term ‘laureate’ always seems to get caught somewhere between the teeth and the lips when it escapes the mouth. It’s interesting how validating it’s been in different audiences, and how confusing it’s been in others. I think the thing is just learning to walk real tall with it; take it your way, and be very unapologetic about it. I think that’s how I’ve decided to be about that life.
Can you name a favorite poet or poem?
There’s a gentleman from Baton Rouge by the name of Donney Rose. He has this poem called ”Last Words” and I think it’s just incredible. It’s an incredible piece. To recall on it is truly touching.
I was wondering if you could reflect on what Aurora, Colorado is today, Oct. 28, 2016 and how that meshes with your longstanding residency here. The city has changed quite a bit from when you were in high school in the early 2000s.
This place is awesome. I think the laureate position has allowed me to notice it’s awesomeness a little bit more than I probably did prior. When I was at Smoky Hill, the diversity index was not what it is now. It was slightly monochromatic. And then I went off to school in western Nebraska where that diversity index was even worse. And so coming back I had some appreciation, but most of my appreciation was from a southern Aurora variable. My best friend is Vietnamese, my other best friend is an African-Mexican-American, and my other best friend is Italian. So we operated within our diversity in that point in time, but, in my opinion, a very south Aurora way. We noticed our differences, but it wasn’t so enormously rich in culture. We were almost more bound by our suburban-ness than our actual ethnic identity. Now, when I observe the city, I have these moments when I stop and pause to wrap my head around how unique this moment is.
Like, I’m at the bank in line at Wells Fargo. And working these stations, it looks like a Latino cat, I don’t know where he’s from; an Asian lady I don’t know where she’s from; maybe an Ethiopian-like brother, I’m assuming that’s where he’s from; and like an older, white lady; and if I were to just take a quick glance back into this line, there would be a litany of other types of groups represented just in the line behind me. If there are any observations that have slowed me down, it’s that. That’s not like other places. That’s what really makes this place unique. And that’s just the southern belt. When you get up north, the minority becomes the majority inside of those spaces, and it creates a whole different experience. I think I enjoy that about Aurora the most.
I have to ask about your hat — it just says “Colfax.” What do you think about the development of that corridor?
Colfax constantly goes through these processes of redefinition. I work on Colfax and Race. I have this unique opportunity, being out here in southeast Aurora, where I can choose to take York to I-25, and then I-25 to I-225 and home, or I can just take Colfax to I-225 and I-225 home.
I think there are still Denverish things pushing four or five blocks toward Quebec after you cross Colorado heading east, but once you get past Quebec, all of a sudden the city takes on this cool transformation. Things start being culturally-driven for blocks, and by the time that you get into Aurora, you start getting into the thick of cultural ownership, especially commercial cultural ownership.
All these folks want to write this list about Denver, like ‘the things you should check out in Denver.’ Red Rocks stacks up on top of this thing, and then you throw into the mix basic civic things, like the Zoo or the History Museum, or our illustrious parks like Civic Center and Cheesman and City Park. I think like those are some decent representations, but you want to know Aurora? You want to know Denver? Get on the 15 and ride the 15 the whole leg. And try to be present, and honestly, in my opinion, stand the whole time as you watch folks who need this bus, who need this vessel to get them across the way. That’s where you’re going to get it in its richness. And that’s when I think it’s most beautiful. You see that eastern-western relationship, and whether it’s going to be the RN who’s going to get on all the way east or all the way down to the myriad of different languages that are going to hop on this bus as it moves along. I think that’s a great example of Colfax still being this internal viaduct. As all these things orbit, like the way I-25, I-225 and I-70 sort of orbit the core — and even E-470 sort of orbits. This is like a straight line to the gut.
I think of bela luta, which is a Portuguese phrase a good buddy of mine once introduced to me. It means the “beautiful struggle.” Colfax is a great, constant representation of that.
What does the future hold for Jovan Mays?
I didn’t grow up in a very English-oriented space. I want to learn, and I want to know what it’s like to be in two, fully-committed years of school to get a Master of Fine Arts or a Master’s degree in creative writing or poetry, just to actually know those ropes. I feel like that degree is really going to push my marketability. Because I feel like I’m a little short in the formalized academic setting. I also feel like I’m short in the publication setting. I think those are two big cornerstones that, when I’m all done here, I’m going to pour all of my energy into.
Yes, I think Jovan Mays could be, like, a Colorado Book Award winner. Yes, I think I could be a graduate from an MFA program, and yes, I think that I could be the state laureate.
I would want to bring something to the state laureate position, not just have it. I think that’s the problem sometimes with these sorts of jobs. It is less about the title and more about what you do with it when you have it. The type of interaction that I have with students — what does that look like in Montrose? What does that like in Ft. Morgan? I got to do some work in Durango a few years ago and it felt like powerful work. And I’d love to use that platform to get around the state and interact with more people. My whole goal has not changed since I got the position in Aurora. Say, you’re a football player. And you’re a great football player. How many other football players do you make? Like how many people have been inspired to play football because of you? I ask myself those types of questions all the time. I’m conscious of legacy and long-term sustainability. If I’m a poet and I’m supporting this identification that’s really, really hard for people to possess past being, like, a 10-year-old, how many poets am I inspiring to carry that flag more proudly? I think that goal still maintains for me.
Talk us through the experience of participating in TEDxMileHigh. What was that like and what was the feedback like?
It was incredible. I try to not get tied up into the corporate aspect of TED because there’s a part of it that’s a bit like Columbusing, in my own opinion. At this point in time, there are very few ideas that are so original that any of us have. It’s more just like, how is this thing interacting inside of your own life and how do you bring it to the masses?
There was a moment in my final practice, which was at The Ellie Caulkins Opera House, and I was with my coach, who has been a poetry teammate of mine, Theo Wilson. We’re running it and, all of a sudden, Theo got a little bit emotional; he got misty-eyed, and I had never seen this before. I was like ‘what’s going on, man?’ And he’s like, ‘I’ve never thought about your story, like the first time you were introduced to your blackness, and how universal that is for most people of color.’ And I had not even thought about that. I had just looked at my story as something for any person who’s ever been told that they are something that they don’t want to accept.
After that, I get onstage, and the Ellie is like a three-tiered deal, and it’s my first time being on a stage that has that. I’m looking up there, and I have this quick thought in my head. I look up and it reminds me of the Jim Crow era, where all the people of color are just in the rafters. I can’t see these people, it just feels this way. What I can hear and feel is my sister and my dad in that area.
The vast majority of my talk is about my grandma, and so all of a sudden, this like dawn of responsibility and recognition hit me and I had never felt that in any of my other runs. All of a sudden, this talk that had been like super-rehearsed got really emotional in certain spots, and I didn’t anticipate it becoming that. Getting a chance to watch it, I was very proud of how that all went down.
What I talk about in that is probably happening in the city of Aurora daily, if not weekly. So it’s relevance is real high. When I created it, I wanted it to be the type of thing that a teacher could sit their students down with and talk about. And how through time, there’s going to be so many things that are going to try to define you.
Sitting in this library, where you said you used to come and pass out after early-morning wrestling practice, can you reflect back on going through the Cherry Creek School District and eventually graduating from Smoky Hill?
Cherry Creek schools were a very interesting experience. As an elementary schooler, I was in that sea of kids who were misdiagnosed for attention deficit disorder. It was a very awkward time, with being out of control with my emotions and burning relationships with the school and my parents really having to do their hard work to keep me inside of some of these places.
By the time I hit fourth and fifth grade, I had an outstanding teacher by the name of Phyllis Ciccio and she really was about weaning me off of the medication and having me grow as a student. She launched me into middle school in pretty good placement. She’s a great a lady; an outstanding woman. I owe almost everything to her.
By the time I had crossed over into Smoky Hill, I was a very strong-minded, confident individual. I was able to move through this school in a very proud, confident way. I was starting to find some ownership in my poetry identity. A large part of that is owed to Mr. Eric Alwin, who was my freshman English teacher and I had basically every year after that. He was the man. He was always willing to introduce me to cross cultural literature and expand my brain in a way that kept me hungry, but also kept me fed.
During this time I was majorly identified as an athlete. I was a football player, a wrestler, I played lacrosse my last year here, and that was a large part of my identity. But I definitely was the kid who would rock, like, a Common t-shirt with puka shells and a kufi one day, and the next day I’d be in, like, dress slacks and a letter jacket. Like my artist/athlete sides were always bouncing off of each other in this environment.
This school to me was very unique. I got a real quality education in this place. I left here a very driven individual. When academic walls came up in college, I was able to process through them, and I would be remiss to say that this place isn’t responsible for that.
If you could have dinner with anyone, living or dead, who would it be?
I really love Ben Harper. He’s my favorite musician. It’d be really, really cool to tell him about how impactful he’s been on my life, but also pick his brain about his creative process.
What’s the most played song on your iTunes/Spotify?
It’s called “They’ve Got So Much Things to Say” by Lauryn Hill, off her “Unplugged” album. I come back to that song a lot when I need the confidence to keep going.
What was the last movie you saw in theaters?
I think it was that Jesse Owens flick, “Race.”
What’s your favorite holiday food or holiday meal?
We’ve always had a really Jamaican-infused holiday, so like a jerk chicken, but turkey; a jerk-turk. It’s really good.