Jovan Mays is the Poet Laureate of Aurora and a National Poetry Slam Champion. He is a member of the Denver SlamNUBA national slam poetry team and won two Denver city slam championships and qualified for three international finals stages.

A speaker at our previous Make + Believe event, Jovan’s work has appeared in The Pilgrimage, Button Poetry, and Write About Now. He is also the community engagement coordinator for Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and the author of four books. Here, we talk about generating empathy and listening to the Iris Dweller.


How did you get into poetry and the slam poetry scene in Denver?

I got into poetry like most of us do, in the second grade classroom around a teacher in a rocking chair. I learned that words have sounds. Over time that learning deepened for me because I had a grandma who was good about keeping my pencil sharpened and active. As I grew up, I went inactive for a while, but in 8th grade I got really interested in hip hop music. I have a cousin who is really into hip hop and he introduced me to the difference between a rapper and lyricist. Around my freshman year, my English teacher taught me to write in a notebook, and I started showing him my work. It was social commentary while also poetry. He had me meet him at the the Denver Poetry Slam and volunteered me to perform. I was nervous and shaking, but I got up on stage and did my poems. Since that moment I’ve had a vested interest in spoken word and slang. Things have progressed, going from once every six months at the Denver Poetry Slam to being the national champ.

Why do you feel Denver is such a thriving hub for slam poetry?

Denver has a long history of being a hub for poetry. There’s always been attention towards the beat poets in our past. I also think that any place that has a natural majesty, like Colorado does, will have a lot of poets. They go hand in hand. Denver as a city doesn’t have a ton of preservation efforts. Because of the lack of historical prevention, the poets are the “antiquity avengers.” We look at gentrification and different cultures throughout our neighborhoods that are getting changed over. Poets take pride in making sure that record and registry is balanced. Also, Denver is the hippy town of the region. It’s a confluence from all directions of artists. Our poetry scene is just staying in line with comedy scene and it has become a confluence of creators bringing rural, urban, and suburban value.

Where do you draw your inspiration from in creating your poetry?

People. I write a lot of poems about people. The human spirit is something we’re privileged to observed. There’s so much flexibility and dexterity that is triggered by so many things. How often does the human spirit have these out-of-body experiences you can’t make sense of? I look at everything from African Americans surviving the diaspora to a woman singing to her child. I work hard to convey all that. The other thing I’m driven by is generating empathy. I believe it’s a societal value that has been lost when we’re caught up in our regular role. I use my platform as a space to enhance that, to strip back all the political nature of things, and get to the heart of it.

What’s something few people know about you?

I’m an enormous Oakland Raiders fan. If people think about the poet in me they don’t think football fan. I also love folk music and bluegrass. Oh, and I like to take string cheese and melt it onto a plate and eat off the melted part straight from the plate.

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

My nephew. His birthday is actually on the same day as Make + Believe this year—he’s turning two years old. He makes me laugh all the time. His face when he is tasting things he doesn’t like is priceless. There’s a level of disgust and offense for us feeding it to him drives me up the wall.

When did you last make time for make-believe?

Two weeks ago, it was one of these hot days. And right around dusk a thunderstorm rolled in to converge with the sunset. The clouds started doing this thing that looked like they were erupting. It’s the science of the heat converging with the rain that makes the sky look these colors. The environment is trying to convey to us how unlimited we are. It’s unique to its own. That’s the best part of living in Colorado—the majesty of living around here, the nature. I get reminded of that all the time. I realize that the thing that’s been sitting in the back of my heart that been calling to me, that thing can be done. I also believe in this thing I call “the Iris Dweller.” There’s this man, this scribe-type man sitting in my eye with a vintage typewriter that is overflowing with paper. He is constantly seeing the world and coming up with these great ideas. I’m usually checked out and not hearing him. But he just keeps going. But it’s days like the one with the sunset that make me listen to him. Sometimes I say I’m not creating things because they’re already created. I’m just bringing them out. The whites of my eyes are the typewriter paper overflowing with ideas.

Do you have a favorite TED talk?

Any SlamNUBA performances through TEDxMileHigh. I also like Anis Mojgani’s reminder you that you’re OK being you.