Former Aurora poet laureate Jovan Mays’ grandfather was a New York City bus driver for more than 20 years.
Born and raised in Aurora, Mays didn’t get to see him often, so he has no memory of them together. But he does remember attending his grandfather’s funeral in third grade.
“There were hundreds of people at his funeral, people that rode his line,” Mays says. “It made me realize he had touched some lives in a unique way.”
At age 30, Mays still thinks about those people when he rides the bus. It’s actually one of his favorite places to write and observe. As Aurora’s first poet laureate, Mays — whose three-year term ended this week — also frequented libraries, museums and schools around his hometown.
Mays has a car, but he still tries to ride the bus once a week for a few hours. It’s a source of inspiration, full of activity and conversation. The poet likes that so many people from different walks of life use the bus. Each line has a different soul, he says.
“It might as well be a diner or like my YMCA in the morning,” he says. “If something really strikes me, I’ll pull out the pencil and try to construct. But sometimes it’s just about feeling it.”
Mays often throws on his headphones to soundtrack the bus ride with the likes of Common, Max Roach or Bob Dylan. He is especially attentive at each intersection, like Colfax Avenue and Yosemite Street — known as “the split” between Aurora and Denver.
Mays knows a lot about Aurora. He’s researched important figures who inspired road names, like former U.S. Vice President Schuyler Colfax and Aurora Public Schools founder William Smith.
“A part of being a poet laureate is trying to be a modern historian.”
A poet laureate writes and performs pieces for special events, like “State of the City” addresses or holidays like Martin Luther King Jr. Day. They host workshops and advocate for literacy. As Mays says, they are selected “to be the voice of your city.”
The United States has its own poet laureate. So does Colorado. Denver has a youth poet laureate. And in 2013, Aurora city officials decided to search for their first.
“To reach out and say, ‘This is an important event and here’s why,’ you’ve got to have the emotion,” says Aurora’s director of library and cultural services department Patti Bateman, and Mays was a standout candidate.
“He has passion, enthusiasm, he’s articulate,” Bateman says.
But the ride wasn’t always smooth. In 2015, a couple of Aurora city council members expressed concerns over some of his poetry. Mays does explore some controversial issues like racism.
Other poems by Mays take on police shootings of black men, like Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. This type of subject matter came up when the Aurora city council considered whether to extend Mays’ term for two more years.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that a poet laureate is supposed to stir up controversy and read poems like that,” councilmember Marsha Berzins said during a 2015 meeting. “I would have never have voted on this if I had known that.”
In the end, officials compromised. Mays got an extra year, instead of two. Some council members said the shorter term would give others the chance to be poet laureate sooner. The decision earned some media attention.
Bateman, who oversees the poet laureate, says the coverage was “greatly blown out proportion” and adds that plenty of council members supported Mays. For 2016, the council did give him a $2,000 stipend. Bateman says the group didn’t have to extend his term, but the extra time helped the city define the poet laureate’s role.
“It allowed us to finish some of the programming ideas that we had, like the workshops. He could go into them more in-depth,” Bateman says. “It was challenging because the idea of a poet laureate is this amorphous concept.”
For Jovan Mays’ part, he says the debate was trying. Picking his words carefully as he talks about it, Mays says he comes from a very proud black family that has ties to the Civil Rights Movement. He wants his words to be thought-provoking and challenging.
“To me, that’s what great art does,” Mays says. “It doesn’t always move you where you want to be moved, but great art moves you.”
Mays channeled the concerns about his poetry into making the most of his final year as Aurora’s poet laureate. He did more readings and hosted more events. That included Write Aurora — a free workshop that regularly took people to places around the city to write about them.
Ida Chou of Denver attended several of the Write Aurora workshops and now says she’s more aware of her surroundings.
“What both intimidates and inspires me about Mays' work is how insightful and relevant it is to life,” Chou says. “It’s so free and powerful at the same time. That’s how I experience his work. Where does he come from? Do I have that in me?”
Staring out the window as the 15L bus trundles past trailer parks, townhomes and taquerias along East Colfax, Mays reflects on what he sees and on his fellow passengers.
“You can tell some folks are praying that somebody doesn’t sit next to them,” he says. “And some folks are praying that somebody does sit next to them.”
He finds inspiration in these everyday moments. Hip hop has also been a big inspiration for him. That’s what motivated him to start writing. A high school teacher noticed his talents freshman year and pushed Mays to pursue poetry. He soon got into slam poetry, a raw style of competitive performance. Years later, Mays won the National Poetry Slam championship as part of Denver’s SlamNUBA team.
Nearing the last stop on this bus ride, he reads a poem named “Borealis.” It draws a parallel between his hometown of Aurora and the Aurora Borealis.
“The big kicker of the end of the poem is the fact that it’s not just the colors of the sky here,” he says. “It’s all the colors of the people here.”
And by colors, he means more than skin. It’s about personalities, languages, professions, and all the flavors of Aurora that he wants to capture with his words.
Jovan Mays has big plans now that he’s finished as Aurora’s first poet laureate. He wants to go to graduate school to study creative writing. He wants to travel. He also hopes to still work with the city and with students.
He’ll also take time to complete a collection of poems about buses and their drivers.