Fiscal prudence (and you must say those words as Miss Jane Hathaway from “The Beverly Hillbillies” would have) is to most politicians as what a large glass of whole milk is to the lactose intolerant: a source of great rhetorical flatulence.
And such talk has been stinking up a few meetings of the greater minds of the Aurora City Council, deciding the fate of the city’s poet laureate.
This is the rich stuff that Aurora is made of.
Many of you probably have no idea that the city has a poet laureate, and that he’s an amazing, rising star on the national poetry scene. Auroran Jovan Mays has for the past year held the city’s distinguished post, traipsing across the town, the region and the country to wow audiences with his beguiling and provocative poems, for which he has so far been paid a whopping goose egg.
Mays has walked away victorious from a growing number of poetry slams. He is regularly filmed at readings, adding a captivating performance art quality to his appearances. Mays a has turned more than a few heads in the country, amazed that Aurora would have the cultural chutzpah to pull off such a feat.
But Mays has also turned a few stomachs on the city council. A handful of fiscally and self-proclaimed prudent lawmakers are horrified that not only are some of Mays’ poems provocative, but they can be downright vexing. They don’t like it.
Take Mays’ poem, “TeePees.” It’s a passionate and rousing finger in the face of a country that has treated American Indians and other minorities in sadistic ways. Now, personally, I am hugely offended by racism and the disturbing treatment of Native Americans, but some are offended by Mays’ passionate and highly poetic rants.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that a poet laureate is supposed to stir up controversy and read poems like that,” exclaimed councilwoman Marsha Berzins at a study session focusing about whether to continue the fledgling program. “I would never have voted on this if I had known that. I could see people getting up and walking out of events if that’s what he’s going to do.”
Can you imagine a poet saying inflammatory, provocative and unsettling things? Well, you probably could if remembered your high school English class.
How about American icon, and father of free-verse poetry, Walt Whitman? He lost his government job when he published the then-scandalous, “Leaves of Grass,” filled with iconic parts like “Calamus.” That’s where Whitman talks glowingly about taking his man crush to a higher level and getting down and dirty.
Since most poetry is by nature an expression of marvel, outrage and frustration, it’s hard to discriminate which poems most exemplify those rousing qualities — almost all of them do.
Berzins wasn’t alone is getting red-faced over a black man questioning white wisdom in the face of things like police shootings of unarmed minorities, marginalization of the poor and downtrodden, and the arrogance of the ruling class. Like Voltaire and Victor Hugo, Mays makes a passionate plea to hear the voices of an America regularly ignored. Some people don’t want to hear them.
“I don’t see (it) as culturally responsible, reading something that’s going to anger and shake up people,” warned Councilwoman Renie Peterson. “I don’t like where this is going.”
Me, neither. Going? This is where it’s been. Did Peterson et al miss Allen Ginsberg’s American masterpiece, “The Howl”? Provocative doesn’t begin to describe passages of America turning to fun, empty drugs, emotional obscenity and gay-biker orgies. That brought on some book burnings and got more than a few folks talking — which was the point. It’s always been the point, going back thousands of years. Oedipus and Antigone were not for the easily off put.
What Peterson and Berzins overlook is the age-old problem of impolitely shooting the messenger. The poets aren’t provocative, but the subjects they write about are. They reflect the controversies around us, and good ones like Mays make us look at those issues up close and, often, uncomfortably personal. As to looking serving only sweet Robert Frosties to the masses, that kind of thing has got three JeffCo school board members about to be looking for jobs.
Real life ain’t no Hallmark card, folks. And good poetry makes that point.
As disconcerting as it was for some council members that Mays gets in peoples’ faces and heads, the most-embarrassing part is that those critics are now balking at continuing with Mays and paying him a new, unrequested, annual $2,000 honorarium. They argue that his is a volunteer position, and that other city volunteers don’t get stipends, so why should this one?
Wow. They equate nice people who sit through boring budget or veterans affairs meetings with an artist who makes endless appearances each year, performing what he’s taken endless hours creating. This criticism is so reflective of a naive mentality that equates the arts with hobbies like scrap-booking. This is why football players and stock barons make millions in this country while poets and song writers qualify for Medicaid.
Some critics fear that before long the city will be asked to pay the poet laureate something obscenely expensive, like maybe $5,000 or $6,000 a year.
“Then the next thing you know, it’ll be on the budget line,” said Councilman Bob LeGare, who actually likes Mays and the poet laureate idea. “It’s the creep of taxpayer dollars.”
OK. Given that we also have volunteer city council members, why not end their stipends, benefits and retirement contributions and use that cash to fight other parts of taxpayer dollar “creep”?
But here’s the whopper line that even Ezra Pound couldn’t have topped: “We spend so much money and effort branding the city” to improve its image in the metro area, said Berzins, and then muck it up with some poet laureate who “talks about controversial things, and on purpose.” She was referring to Aurora’s $350,000 campaign to persuade the Front Range that the city is “worth discovering,” and not a backward cultural wasteland.
Oh, Marsha, My Marsha. That’s exactly why the city has to spend so much money on advertising to persuade people that Aurora isn’t the kind of place that does things like this. Chalk it up to taxpayer creep. We’re going to need a lot more “worth discovering” marketing dollars for next year.
See Jovan Mays work yourself at www.jovanmays.com/video
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