Mighty Mike McGee- Santa Clara County’s Newest Poet Laureate
It’s one of Mighty Mike McGee’s first appearances since being named Santa Clara County’s fifth poet laureate. He’s about to emcee his weekly Thursday night Live Lit poetry/literature-reading event at Caffe Frascati.
If McGee thought he would attract a larger crowd than usual to the artsy coffee house in downtown San Jose’s quirky SoFA district simply because he had been named county poet laureate, he was mistaken.
The crowd cheers happily but briefly when the 42-year-old mentions having won the honor, first bestowed on a county resident in 2008. Maybe most of them already knew.
Anyway, he amps it up a little. Now he’s calling himself the poet laureate of the galaxy. “That has a nice sound to it, doesn’t it?” he says. “Galactic laureate.”
Momentarily, McGee will get on with the regular business of the evening and begin to introduce tonight’s readers one by one, in their turn. He follows each reading with a gentle, encouraging observation.
But now he’s in his element. He’s among literature fans and other writers and poets who are, like him, also willing to risk standing emotionally naked before a crowd and share in the universality of loneliness, love, joy, friendship, insecurity, even food: the most basic stuff of life.
Putting poetry on the map
Before the show, McGee sits down with Santa Clara County Newsbeat and talks about being named the new poet laureate and what he hopes to accomplish in his two-year term. Mostly, like his predecessors, he just wants to help spread his own love of poetry.
“I would be honored to be the person that put San Jose poetry on the map,” says the lifelong county resident, “to help get these (other poets’) voices out there.” Millions of stories crawl through the city every minute of every day, he says, and “I don’t want them to be forgotten.”
“We’re as vital and as vibrant and as viable as San Francisco or Oakland or Los Angeles or any other big city in California. I just don’t want to ever go outside the city again and have people say, ‘Where is San Jose again?’”
Not that poetry alone is going to do that, he acknowledges, adding that, just maybe, his beloved Sharks are helping a little, too.
Paying his dues
McGee didn’t get named county poet laureate in some meteoric rise to greatness. He’s paid his dues in venues grim and grand from here to Paris, honing his comedy and poetry. (He says he doesn’t distinguish between the two; he’s just trying to communicate with an audience and plays to the mood in the room. If an audience is going to submit itself to the powerful “medicine” of his poetry, he says, he’ll always encase it in the gelcap of humor.)
A lifelong resident of Santa Clara County except for brief sojourns elsewhere, McGee started out in 1998 doing standup comedy in downtown San Jose. Along the way, he became the only slam poet to win both the American National Poetry Slam Individual Grand Championship (2003) and the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship (2006).
McGee applied for the county laureate mantle in the first year of his eligibility upon returning to live in the county. (He needed to have had a county address for the previous three years).
His appointment followed a two-step process organized by Santa Clara County, Silicon Valley Creates and the Santa Clara County Library District. Those groups recommended a winner to the Board of Supervisors after reviewing applications, and the board formally appointed him in early February.
Why he won
“Mike stands out among poets, bringing a blend of spoken word, humor and performance poetry that is fresh and appealing to youth and adults alike,” says Nancy Howe, Santa Clara County Library District librarian
As part of his laureate duties, as what he calls “mayor of Poetry Town,” he’s sponsoring a writing and performance poetry initiative at middle schools and high schools.
“We will encourage new writers to explore what poetry means to them, and by showing genuine interest in the voices of young writers, we can foster exponential growth in creative writing throughout the community.”
McGee has several published poems to his credit, including some he collected into a book titled “In Search of Midnight.” He’s also performed on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” and is a regular on NPR’s “Snap Judgment.”
Poem: ‘A Love Letter to Myself’ by Mike McGee
Back to the recent night at Caffe Frascati. McGee is almost ready to introduce the first “act.” But to set the tone, he offers a brand new poem of his own, excerpted here, which he refers to as “A Love Letter to Myself.” He may be “Mighty” Mike McGee and county poet laureate, but he still has some insecurities to spill:
I promised myself many years ago that
I’d never settle for average or mediocre,
that I’d always try to find the best and the worst within myself.
So that maybe I could learn to work the two out
so we could learn from each other.
It’s one thing to say that I’m worthy of love,
but it’s another thing to say I’m worthy of my own.
Here I am with all this love to give,
and I’m trying to find myself so that I know who to give it to.
Like a lot of you, maybe even every single person in this room,
I too have lived a life of such varied confidence — and grilled chicken panini.
I’ve lived a life of such varied confidence, but now I’m trying to figure out what to do with the hands that I’ve been dealt.
I know I’m not tall, dark and handsome, but two out of three ain’t bad.
But you’re probably trying to figure out which two
I’m talking about.
And I only need one person
to figure it out
on their own.
Most people say they only want a man with a good sense of humor, right?
But in reality, I’m just the right height for a man who loves life.
When you stack badass at five feet, six inches, I’m all you need.
If I’m going to find someone who digs me with life’s biggest shovel,
then I’m just going to have learn
to dig myself first.
Author: Chuck Carroll
Follow on Twitter @mikemcgee