Features & Columns

Santa Clara County Anoints Mighty Mike Its Poet Laureate

Michael "Mighty Mike" McGee has spent the past two decades paying his poetic dues.

Mighty Mike McGee and I are slouching around inside an undisclosed coffee shop, discussing the laundromats of downtown San Jose. We're rattling off the benefits of carrying our laundry to 11th and San Carlos, as opposed to Eighth and Empire streets.

McGee is a fixture in coffee shops like Caffe Frascati, where he runs the weekly Live Lit event every Thursday, and where he also reads from children's books every Sunday morning. But as of this past Monday, McGee is the newly donned Santa Clara County poet laureate, and his biographical info is now permanently enshrined in a county Board of Supervisors meeting agenda packet. McGee has already paid his poetic dues on the streets of San Jose, and it's about to get better.

Perhaps the most important aspect of McGee's ascendence to laureate status, in my view, is that he is the first ever county poet laureate to hail from the actual streets as opposed to the constraints of the academy. He doesn't have an MFA or a Ph.D. He never taught a class at San Jose State or flipped through 700-page Norton anthologies to learn about anapestic or synecdoche. He'd rather tour the country, crash on couches and win international slam poetry contests than drink hotel scotch with academics at writers' conferences.

"I didn't start off as a literary poet," he says. "I started off on a microphone, you know? What are the chances of them giving laureate status to someone who started out on stage?" Even though McGee kept second guessing himself about all of this, the call finally came with the good news that he'd been awarded the county poet laureate for a two-year term.

"I was washing dishes in that moment and I almost dropped my phone in the sink," he says.

It's not inaccurate to say McGee has been waiting 20 years for this. He did his first poetry gig in 1998 at the long defunct Cafe Babylon, right down the street from Cafe Stritch, Caffe Frascati and Forager—three places where he currently hosts events. Babylon became a place to which McGee kept returning. He always wanted to be there. He couldn't miss a single installment— exactly what he now hears people saying about his Thursday events at Frascati.

In fact, one can't imagine the last 20 years of downtown San Jose without an event hosted or emceed by McGee somewhere. He's a fixture. His book, In Search of Midnight, is like laughing yoga therapy for the terminally awkward. Just recently I watched him read from Marisol McDonald and the Clash Bash for a group of kids and their parents at Caffe Frascati. It was a rollicking good time. He also spent a few years hosting the Burning Tale monthly storytelling series at the now defunct Studio Bongiorno.

All of which proves McGee is already doing the duties of the county poet laureate. Now it's just official. The position comes with a stipend and the laureate is responsible for the entire county. Each of the previous laureates all took a different approach, expanding the scope of what it meant to be a laureate, but it's still a relatively obscure honorific. At the moment, the poet laureate is not yet household concept. McGee says maybe 2 percent of county residents even know we have a poet laureate.

"I want to take that 2 percent of people who know what a laureate is and I want to make that into like 6 percent or 12," he says. "I want to expand the concept of a laureate because I think once people know what that is and what it means they'll be like, 'Oh. There's a couple of organizations putting some import on poetry.' To the point that they're basically making a poetry mayor. And that's how I feel, the mayor of poetry."

When it comes to the kids, McGee says he eventually wants to establish a youth laureate position. It's long overdue.

"Expression is a very foreign thing to a lot of kids," he says. "Especially any kid who's always told to be quiet. 'Be quiet. Be quiet. Hey shut up. Stop talking to me.' Hear that enough, you know how to tune out and I don't ever want to tell a kid to be quiet or shut up. As a matter of fact I want to amplify it."