Need poetic license? ‘Slam’ champ opens doors at Durango High

STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald

Slam poetry is a “grand balance of truth and technique,” says Jovan Mays of Denver. Mays, part of a national champion poetry slam team, warmed up the crowd with two performances before a slam for high school students at the Durango Arts Center.

Sure, there are many ways to make a statement. You don’t have to climb atop the trophy case of your new high school, yell to grab everyone’s attention and then break into a poetic rap.

That was Jovan Mays’ method.

You Durango High School students who heard the now-26-year-old speak last week, who were perhaps challenged and motivated by him to think about how you might make an impact, should find your own way. But you had to admit, his way took some guts.

Mays, part of the reigning national poetry slam champion team from Denver, visited Southwest Colorado last week to chat with local kids and help judge a poetry slam competition at the Durango Arts Center.

The appearance was in conjunction with National Poetry Month. It was due to the efforts of DHS English teacher Destiny Schipman, who cajoled Mays into coming after learning about him through an email newsletter. Mays volunteered his time at DHS and the DeNier Youth Center.

Some of you may be asking, what is “slam poetry”? Good question, but let’s start with the more basic question that Mays asked to open his talk to about 200 DHS students Wednesday morning. “What is poetry?”

Is poetry your mother asking you to put on a jacket? Is it your coach’s rousing halftime speech? Perhaps it’s in the eye of the beholder. To Javon Mays, “everything is poetry.”

“If we look at the world and existences around us, we see it everywhere.”

That’s a little heady, but it’s a way to open one’s mind to the possibilities. As a slam poet and part-time contract teacher in the Cherry Creek district, that’s what Mays is all about. He teaches teenagers to write things down and be honest about it.

And maybe what they write is poetry. And once they have a poem, they can enter a competition and recite the poem for an audience and judges. That’s slam poetry.

And that’s what was held Wednesday night at the Durango Arts Center. Mays warmed up the audience and the 18 participants from Durango and Animas high schools by reciting a couple of his own poems – admittedly self-censored a tiny bit to not offend the family crowd. (For the uncensored versions and more, check out his website,

The first, “I Found You,” is an angry rebuke of people who visit New Orleans’ 9th Ward in tour buses just to see the carnage left by Hurricane Katrina seven years ago. Mays makes an annual trip to help rebuild the city that affected residents are still working to reconstruct.

“Someone tell me what’s the amusement?” he shouts, building up to an emotional conclusion: “I beg you. Put down your cameras. Walk away. And stop watching them burn.”

Don’t get the idea that slam poetry is all about anger. Mays uses humor, sadness, whatever it takes. He is nothing if not well-rounded, making it easy to find a way to relate to him on one level or another.

He grew up in a “traditional ’burb” in Aurora. Since middle school his life goal was to be a professional rapper. He attended Smoky Hill High School, where the racial makeup of his friends included Vietnamese, black, Mexican and “meatball Italian.”

Meanwhile, he made the varsity football and wrestling teams. He was good enough to perform in both sports at Chadron State in northwestern Nebraska. But poetry remained his real love. It may seem incongruent – football and poetry.

“I think football in general is a very poetic sport,” he said during a telephone interview before his trip to Durango.

There’s organization and great calamity. Small things need to come together. It is emotionally infused. A halftime speech must be impactful in a very short period of time. “That’s so similar to how a poem is,” he said.

The 5-foot-8, 260-pound defensive tackle graduated from Chadron in 2010 with a degree in secondary history education. “I set my pads aside for the next great warrior,” he says in his ode to the gridiron, “Bigger Than You.”

Slam poetry comes down to a balance of truth and technique, he said. His overriding goal is to get his point across: “What can I do to make my concept and poem clear enough to reach as many people as possible?”

His talk to the high-schoolers was part comedy routine, part social observation, part teaching and part motivation. It gave the students much to consider and discuss. It undoubtedly prompted some to wonder how they’ll make their mark.

For Mays, it was a full day and a successful one. Several students and teachers gushed over him after the poetry slam, saying how inspirational it was to hear him and meet him.

“I like to see the light bulbs go on,” he said after the slam.

So, if you hear about some local kid doing something wacky to get attention, if you hear about some freshman standing atop a cafeteria table, or climbing up a trophy case, and shouting a message for the world to hear, you’ll still think it’s a strange thing for someone to do.

But now you’ll know why. John Peel writes a weekly human-interest column.

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