Features & Columns

Mike McGee's Studio Bongiorno Pulls Poetry Out Of Raw Truth

McGee and Studio Bongiorno go together like pen and page, like sound and fury.
THE VOICE: Burning Tale's monthly storytelling series makes art out of real-life experiences. Photo by Phil Bongiornio.

The stories and poetry of Mike McGee are like laughing yoga therapy for the terminally awkward. Several years ago, after he'd already won slam poetry contests on national and international stages, he released In Search of Midnight. Inside this tome we get graveyard shifts at suburban super-drugstores, love poems, humility, childhood, travel and much more.

It's a loud, boisterous celebration of life that pours out of the pages.

McGee journeys around the continent on a regular basis, and upon resurfacing in his native San Jose a year ago he wound up gigging in Santa Clara. What would possibly cause such a poetic crime to happen? Well, right across from Mission Cemetery one finds Studio Bongiorno, a monumental establishment catering to anyone outside the establishment.

It's a place preordained for poetry and storytelling. There's artwork, incense, skulls, broken sculpture, seats from Candlestick Park, a coffin, prosthetic limbs, canopies, nuts, bolts, tools and lots of artspeak emerging on a daily basis. It feels like a theater prop shop gone gloriously awry.

Studio Bongiorno is where McGee launched the Burning Tale monthly storytelling series one year ago. The next installment erupts Saturday, Jan. 23 from 6-11pm. Anyone with a tale to tell can show up and force-cram his or her soul into the ears of the audience. That's one of Mike's lines, by the way. Mike functions as the host, the bent emcee, so to speak, occasionally offering his own stories or poems in between the other participants. Weather permitting, the show takes place outside on the patio. Poetry is welcome, but the emphasis is on the story as a form.

"I tell people all the time—I can ask anyone I know—to do a poem, but nine times out of 10, they'll say, 'I'm not a poet, I don't have any poetry,'" McGee says. "But I can ask anyone to just get up and tell a story, or an anecdote, and nine times out of 10, they have one. Everyone's got a story. Tell us about that time your uncle stabbed your grandma. Tell us about that time you almost married a dog in Vegas."

In the course of putting on events, McGee says, he discovered that everyone digs storytelling, but it's not just a matter of hearing a story. People love being told a story. As host and performer, McGee loves how people silence themselves when their favorite storyteller in the group begins to launch another wicked tale. But the story has to be true. That's why Burning Tale can be so much fun.

"The only prerequisite for my stories, for Burning Tale, is that they have to be true, or at least as true as they can possibly be," McGee says. "And you should be the star of the story. Or you should at least be a character in the story."

It gets better. A few months back, McGee introduced a workshop component to the experience. Interested parties with stage fright or those who aren't used to speaking in front of an audience can learn how to express themselves. The featured storyteller or poet at the Burning Tale event usually leads the workshop. This time around, the workshop takes place the following day, on the afternoon of Jan. 24.

Plenty of spaces throughout the valley could host a storytelling event, but Studio Bongiorno really seems a perfect fit, not only because the graveyard sits nearby. The venue presents an eclectic, vanguard and beautifully gloomy environment in which to perform. It's not just a "space" or a "gallery." It's an environment. The props, décor and morbid accoutrements seem like part of the audience—a traditional campfire storytelling session taken to the next level.

San Jose endlessly banters about music scenes and art scenes, so it's about time to emphasize a writing scene. McGee and Studio Bongiorno go together like pen and page, like sound and fury.

"I would like writers to really discover that Studio Bongiorno is a good place to come on a Saturday or a Sunday," he says. "It's a quiet, inspiring, peaceful, weird, occult-y kind of spot for people to come, sip tea, and write their asses off."

500 Lincoln St., Santa Clara.
Saturday, Jan. 23 6-11pm