Mighty Mike McGee: My City is Finding Its Voice
by Lane Berger
Mighty Mike is hosting a party. Inside, the air is humid with bodies. Standing room only in the hallway. Everyone’s turned toward an eat-in-kitchen-cum-living-room that’s been converted into a performance space, complete with white soapbox platform and an electric organ. Someone’s swapped in a couple of fuchsia bulbs. They shine on a man with a pin made of Scrabble letters: I ♥ SJ. I love San José. Mighty Mike is all sweat, no tremble. His voice is measured. Earnest. "Let’s say you are me in this moment," he recites. "You are unintentionally serenaded."
And we are.
Whether by name or by reputation, most everyone in San José knows Mighty Mike McGee—a South Bay institution of creative content. He performs regularly as a performance and spoken-word poet and has won most of the awards that a male performance poet can win, including the 2003 National Poetry Slam Individual Grand Championship and the 2006 Individual World Poetry Slam Grand Championship. He has been featured on HBO's Def Poetry Jam, CBC Radio and Television, and NPR's Snap Judgment. In January 2018, McGee was named the 2018-2019 Santa Clara County Poet Laureate.
McGee’s relationship with poetry began with spoken word, and he isn’t ashamed of it. He doesn’t believe there’s a "right way" to start, and he balks at any mention of dichotomy or hierarchy of quality. "There is poetry that relates to you and poetry that doesn’t," he says. "The poetry that relates to you, put it on a pedestal. The words, the thoughts, the concepts that resonate with you, hold on to those." Show them off, he urges. Emulate and prune until you find your voice.
If words are human, poetry is, too, whether spoken or written, metric or free verse. McGee wants the people of San José to have a quotidian and intimate relationship with literature, specifically poetry, and he has made it his life’s work to insert poetry everywhere, and for everyone—the illiterate, the well-versed, and all those who claim themselves "nonliterary." But it is also a question of pride. McGee doesn’t just want to bring poetry to San José. He wants the global community to pay attention to the poetry of his city.
Mighty Mike went beyond San José’s city limits once: in April 2002, he went on his first solo tour to Vancouver, British Columbia, "and caught the travel bug." He began touring "almost incessantly." A quick peek at his website yields the statistic "at least three-quarters of a million miles throughout the United States, Canada, and Europe." In 2005, McGee became one of the first Americans to perform spoken-word at the University of Paris, Sorbonne. The year 2009 brought a stopover in Worcester, Massachusetts, just "to actually have a roof over [his] head." For eighteen months, McGee’s touring schedule slowed to about one week per month before things picked up again: Portland, Oregon, then Bellingham, Washington, and again, Vancouver.
McGee’s ability to have toured, more or less consistently, for a decade seems an unfathomable bounty. And yet for McGee, the journey’s end was never far from his mind. "I was on the road, like, 'Someday I’m gonna go back to San José.' It took me a while to realize that I could also figure out life and love here. That I could just get off the road, stop touring, and be home."
In July 2014, McGee moved to San José for good, and although he still loves to travel, he tours less and less. "I’m finding living out of a suitcase thoroughly unfavorable," he chuckles. "No matter how much I liked a place, I always felt like an alien. And there’s such a huge difference between being treated like a marvelous alien and a hometown homie. I spent ten years being a marvelous alien. And I really just wanted to be a local boy. Somebody that everyone knows."
Choosing San José wasn’t a decision made out of obligation. It was a decision made toward belonging, and with hope. "Not only do I feel like I’m claiming a city that I’ve always enjoyed, but I feel like it also gets to claim me. I’ve gone out and done a lot of things, and now I want to give San José a person to look to for poetry and laughter."
McGee serves on the board of the Poetry Center of San José and organizes a growing list of events, such as the San José Poetry Slam, Tournamentertainment at Forager, Live Lit Writers’ Open Mic at Caffe Frascati, and the Go Go Gone Show at Café Stritch. In the summer, he teaches poetry at the School of Arts and Cultures’ camp at Mexican Heritage Plaza.
Although there are days when he feels like he never stops moving, McGee counts his blessings: "Work is fine by me, because I design my own work." But San José is full of people for whom professional autonomy is a luxury—for whom art seems a luxury. "I feel like a lot of people live their lives like pain is the default."
McGee spends hours every week pursuing grants and fundraising opportunities in order to deconstruct the notion of art as a luxury, of poetry as anything other than absolutely, fundamentally human. "I know that there’s a high cost of living in San José. But poetry is free, or very inexpensive. I think more people need it than they realize."
McGee defends his genre. He explains that poetry is a source of truth. Not just truths that the speaker or writer believes, but truths that the listener or reader believes—truths that resonate because they reflect a world that is joyous and horrible. And the real world is joyous and horrible. Truth is what allows poems to live on their own—to be had, always, by anyone.
What people do with that truth is up to them, but McGee hopes "it makes their day a little easier" to feel like someone gets it; that poetry "might force them into some introspection that they’d never considered before; and that they might be able to come up with solutions, answers, catharsis." Ultimately, McGee hopes that people will be inspired to write poems of their own.
To reintroduce poetry, to bring it back, and to make it feel lively is an undertaking that he feels is equal parts responsibility and privilege. When it comes to his city, McGee is a passionate optimist, suggesting, "Maybe I can help. Maybe I can make people laugh and cry, in the same hour, in a place I love."
Mighty Mike McGee’s first collection of humor and poetry, In Search of Midnight, is available through Write Bloody Publishing. Visit http://www.mightymikemcgee.com/
ON THE EVE OF ALL THOSE SAINTS
Maybe I am a foolish old man
who thinks I might seem younger because I bike around town
death can’t catch me if I keep moving
Maybe there was a moment this evening
when I was pedaling faster than I ever have and yet
my eyelids got too heavy and so
I gave them permission to close
Maybe my machine and I came off the curb
my body lifted up into the nothing above the street
Arms hugging a ghost too tall
I am certainly not waiting to land
I do not wish for it in any way
So I sleep into it
Let’s say you are me in this moment
The breeze you force yourself through
cools the tears and sweat
that are cutting through your eyebrows
insistent glaciers passing over your eyes
You are unintentionally serenaded
by the voices of kids leading their parents to the
next house where candy awaits
voices that seem to have forgotten the last house and will
eventually forget this next one and
likely this night
You’ve had forty-one of these nights
You are lucky to remember seven or eight
But you remember the night your aunt and uncle took you and
your brother to Los Gatos for rich people’s candy
you never forget full-sized chocolate bars for kids and
beers for the grown-ups for doing
god’s work dragging these little shits out for candy
but they were cool, young adults who
hadn’t yet gone to prison or hell
You once had a sweet tooth, but
it shattered on a $6 pearl from a 25¢ oyster at a $12 buffet in Vancouver
sitting across from the sweetest thing
you’d ever abandon
The fragment of tooth that will never leave your jaw is
an accomplice to diabetes
You were a great zombie
Before all this zombie shit
You were a kind clown
A sweet cowboy
You deserved all that candy, every year
because you went door-to-door and you asked for it so sweetly
It always made sense to live on candy
Right Now is all in for whatever down means
Once zenith is reached, it makes sense to fall
to come crashing down
Like just before bed on November 2, 1987
with such little candy left outside of your body
Where the hell’d it all go!? your mother will ask
Just lie to her, tell her you simply have no clue
Be a good kid because now we focus on Christmas
As for tonight we fall and
we see the ground coming up to meet us, but
instead of seizing every muscle in your body
you expand outward
every one of your molecules moves away from each other just enough
to make you bigger, looser
you may not be controlling this part
this may be simple universal coincidence and
gravity just happens to be at the end of its handshake with you, losing grip
And you realize, so slowly
That you are not falling
because everything is always falling
No, you are simply racing the world to see
who gets older first
Lane Berger is a writer, editor, and poet. She was the Managing Editor and Marketing Director of Reed Magazine: Issue 152. Lane has performed spoken word at venues throughout Northern California, including the Davis collective, SickSpits, and LiveLit in San José. Lane’s writing has appeared in Inkblot and Reed Magazine. (laneberger.com)