He’s not the one to boast, humblebrag, or really even speak of personal success. And yet, almost nightly, at little coffee shops or large theaters across the country, whether in front of 10 people or a 1,000, Mighty Mike McGee has bared his soul.
The standup poet and comedian, spoken word artist, humorist, master of ceremonies and San Jose nightlife fixture is arguably one of the greatest slam poets in the world. He’s been featured on HBO and CBC Television, and served as a regular contributor to NPR’s Snap Judgment. He hosts seemingly every type of live, speaking-based event in the valley, from downtown San Jose’s Music in the Park and the Live Lit open mic at Caffe Frascati to a beer-sling Spelling Bee at the Local Color art collective or a rowdy talent competition, the Go! Go! Gone Show at Cafe Stritch, to name just a handful.
McGee, 41, toured the world for more than a decade, developing his art alongside the subterranean growth of slam poetry, while slowly becoming one of its most celebrated practitioners. His continual presence in the scene and his oft-autobiographical musings have earned him titles throughout the world of slam poetry, such as first place in the 2006 Individual World Poetry Slam Championship, and first in the National Championship in 2003.
But it wasn’t always this way. Like any superhero, McGee has a difficult origin story that required turning his biggest weaknesses into an irresistible strength.
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Michael Matthew McGee always felt like an outsider. Born in 1976 on the Fort Campbell military base that straddles the border between Kentucky and Tennessee, he was diagnosed with spina bifida, a birth defect that prevents the backbone and spinal cord from fully forming. He has struggled with the disease all of his life. Moving to San Jose at a young age, he was bullied in grade school because of his different status.
One potential side effect of the disease is a lack of bladder control, and any kid forced to wear a diaper will experience a cruelty and callousness particular to young children.
“That gets as much credit as anything else in getting me into performance,” McGee says of his formative years. But rather than sit back and endure the teasing, he flipped the perceived weaknesses into a strength, assailing the jeers with skill and charisma.
While his life at home was economically strained, the environment was always positive, as his mother nurtured his creative aspirations.
“Doctors told my mom I shouldn’t be here, so I’ve kind of lived my life with this borrowed time framework,” McGee says. “I don’t feel like it’s a miracle. I just feel like it was bad diagnosis. I try not to live that way.”
He still deals with complications from spina bifida, which requires him to wear a diaper.
“I got sponsored by Depend a few years ago, and they paid me a lot of money to do one commercial for them,” he says. “It was cool and it was a great experience for me, and it paid my rent for a long time. I thought long and hard if I wanted to be associated with a product like that. When I was a kid, I didn’t know anyone who was successful in the arts who wore diapers. There was no role model for me. I took the commercial because if a kid sees me and thinks I’m an alright guy, and I say, ‘Yep, I wear diapers,’ I thought they might not have to go through all the same bullshit.”
By eighth grade at Hoover Middle School in San Jose, McGee had become a social butterfly—if not the class clown. He was done taking crap, and for the first time his mouth got him in and out of trouble.
“Now that mouth has also gotten me on and off a lot of stages,” he says. “It hasn’t stopped, and I don’t think it will.”
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McGee, by his own estimate, is a professional coffeehouse loiterer. Cafes, diners and just about any other sit-down space with joe are such a staple of his creative process and journey that he can pinpoint the first place he sipped a cup of coffee. Now known as labarre studios, and for a long time the salon and art gallery Five Color Cowboy, the high-windowed former Bank of Italy building at 1445 The Alameda holds great significance to McGee. Those formative coffeehouse years began when McGee was a senior at Willow Glen High School, working at McDonald’s, and continued into the years after he dropped out of West Valley College.
“On my days off I would just loiter there,” he says. “It wouldn’t even be noon and I often had nothing to do.”
If anything, the coffee shop offered McGee some type of permanence. Besides bullying and hardships with money, his childhood was marked by constantly moving, which meant new schools and efforts to make new friends, a process that often resulted in isolation. Before high school, he had never spent more than a year and a half at any school.
“I told my mom I’m not transferring anymore,” McGee recalls. “I liked Willow Glen. It was different than the other schools I attended.”
He made friends, or at the very least “had a group of people that I could sit and eat lunch with.” In his sophomore year, he got involved in theater, which gave him a larger, more consistent social circle. McGee’s family still continued to move, this time from the very edge of San Jose to Lakewood Village in Sunnyvale. But he refused to leave Willow Glen High, turning his daily journey to school into a genuine commute. “I couldn’t get enough of Nirvana and De La Soul, and I would switch those two tapes back and forth as I took the bus downtown, then over into Willow Glen,” McGee says.
The coffee shop remained a fixture. Although he didn’t know it yet, it would become the launchpad for his career.
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Like almost everyone in their early 20s, McGee was impressionable and searching for purpose. He had given up on West Valley after a year with no intention of going back. Frankly, McGee had always hated school. Especially in the early years, it was the setting for his worst memories. So he spent his time “truly loitering” at the coffee shop, sitting, talking and chain-smoking for six or eight hours at a time.
On a quiet night, McGee was shooting the shit when he noticed a guy sit down, his hair fashioned into purple liberty spikes, the rest of his clothing covered in studs and clothespins. McGee was making his friends laugh, when he noticed—with the radar of any good comedian—that the punk was also chuckling. McGee asked him to join the fun, but the punk demurred. After a few more encounters, they warmed to each other, and pretty soon the punk was trying to drag McGee to an open mic at the old Cafe Babylon.
“Going to that open mic that night changed my life”, McGee says.
The punk’s name is Geoff Kagan Trenchard. Along with friends Jeff Hicks and Jeff Archuleta (aka The Three Jeffs), McGee would hang out at Kinko’s and make zines, often with a humorous bent. He credits the Jeffs and his friend David Perez with jumpstarting his desire to engage in the arts.
“He has a very special, unique quality where he is friends with everyone, and in a way that’s not disingenuous,” says Perez, a former Santa Clara County poet laureate. “Everyone connects with him immediately.”
While that may be true now, McGee offers a slightly different view on his ability to achieve immediate success. How did he develop a gift for the spoken word?
“It was really a matter of people telling me I sucked in the nicest way possible,” he says. “My poetry friends were telling me that maybe I shouldn’t be doing these poetry events, because I kept losing. That compelled me to get better at it. I didn’t have my voice yet, and I didn’t know what I was trying to say. Once I got a feel for it, it was a lot easier from that point on. I did better on stages no matter where I went, because I was really focused not only on what I wanted to say, but also how I wanted people to feel after I performed. I wanted them to say, ‘Whoa! I didn’t know poetry could be like that.’ Because that’s what poetry did for me.”
During this time, the late ‘90s, McGee gained his nickname. When asked to provide an email address to his friend Trenchard, he found that every Mike McGee was taken—so he went for alliteration—Mighty Mike McGee. It stuck.
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Before long he became heavily involved in the spoken word poetry scene, working his way up from city slam champion to a world stage. During this time he also began releasing compilation CDs of spoken word—33 to be exact—with his then-roommate under the moniker Bleeding Edge Spoken Word.
All the while, McGee was hosting, emceeing or running live events. Initially, people asked for his help simply because of his experience with poetry slams. But he soon started offering his services as a host, often for the express purpose of getting audiences to listen to his poetry after getting acquainted with him. Again, he didn’t exactly realize it at the time, but the winds of fate were blowing Mighty Mike in a certain direction.
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Like a standup comedian playing clubs, but more haphazardly, McGee improvised a tour across the country in 2003, performing wherever folks would have him. Armed with a roller suitcase filled with a laptop and a few wardrobe changes—which, at that time, constituted all of his possessions—McGee lived the life of a transient. Almost always, he traveled alone to bars and theaters across the country, but loneliness was never too much of a factor. If you know even one person in a strange land, a place can embrace you.
“That was the beauty of the poetry slam network—you had allies wherever you went,” McGee says. “I’d get off a Greyhound bus and there would be people there waiting for me. It was such an amazing feeling.”
Humor is the great leveler, allowing for the darkest tragedies to be stripped of their weight and power. Laughter brings people together and forces out the insecurities that sit present in all of us, just waiting for a trigger to be released. But above all, humor is a coping mechanism—a tool for survival that McGee learned to use from an early age and now serves as a linchpin for all of his spoken word and poetry.
Even his most heartbreaking pieces weave together with an undercurrent of humor. Poems like “Everyday” use the imagery of terrorists strapping bombs to their chests as a metaphor for intense love, or “The End,” where he lists off the absurd ways the world would miss him if he died that day.
“It took me a long time to stop pitting comedy against tragedy,” McGee says. “I realized I could do both at the same time.”
But even with friends waiting along the way, life on the road is hard.
“I saw America from a Greyhound bus for at least 400,000 miles,” McGee recalls.
The stress, uncertainty and patches of boredom led McGee into a lifestyle of drinking—heavily. It brought him to the verge of a nervous breakdown. McGee was also diagnosed with diabetes several years ago. Combined with the drink and a rough life on the road, it could have been a death sentence.
“I am now so much more focused on what’s right for me, and what’s good for me—because if it’s good for me, then it’s good for the people around me,” says McGee, who gave up drinking and smoking. “Then I end up putting that much effort into my work, and the work of others, instead of putting that much effort into buying the next beer. … The diabetes also added another level of, ‘You might not be here that long.’ I have a lot of work to do before I die.”
Moreover, he realized he had been on the road for roughly a decade without any place to call his own—save for the couches he’d slept on. McGee decided to come back home with a new mission.
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“Everyone wakes up with the feeling like I do this thing every day, but am I supposed to do this thing every day? I think everyone is so bent on ‘supposed to,’ and that’s the thing, we write that ‘supposed to’ ourselves.”
It’s this philosophy that drives Mighty Mike McGee’s habit of walking into venues with the sole purpose of seeing if he can create a show there. It’s a state of mind that has allowed him to set his sights on starting an arts and poetry foundation in the South Bay.
“I needed a new ‘supposed to,’ and everything pointed back to San Jose,” he says about the decision to settle down in San Jose in 2014.
McGee first focused on poetry, but he quickly realized that no one in town had established themselves as an entertainment provider or promoter. He had more than the requisite skills—hosting, organizing and decades of wrangling crowds. “I could be one of the guys that put on quality shows,” McGee thought.
A little less than three years later, McGee has become the quintessential South Bay emcee. Just last week—a quieter one at that—he hosted two different open mics, as well as his own performance with friend and musician CADO. In fact, on nearly any night of the week, one can find McGee adroitly hosting and offering his poetic musings somewhere in the South Bay.
“I have a mission here in the valley,” he says. “I want to show San Jose to itself from as many stages as I can. I want San Jose to know that it’s talented and poetic. And beautiful. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people. It’s just a matter of people going out and seeing it for themselves.”
These days, McGee walks down the streets of downtown San Jose and he’s treated like a celebrity—if not some type of saintly figure—as random people stop to hug him, chat or simply thank him for one of the countless events and activities he has helped groom.
“Mike stands out to me as someone who has always been really supportive, and taught me a lot early on,” says Kim Johnson, a fellow spoken word poet. “He’s done so much for local artists. He’s really great with encouraging new artists in all genres to do their thing.”
His roommate, musician and artist Ben Henderson, echoes similar sentiments, as their proximity and house party poetry readings have become their own underground scene. “It’s inspiring to be around him,” Henderson says. “It’s inspiring to simply sit at the dinner table with him.”
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Mighty Mike McGee sometimes wonders if he asks too much of his city. He has purposefully rooted himself with a goal of increasing the status of poetry in the South Bay, while trying to still pay rent. All of his comedian and poet friends have stopped pursuing this goal full time.
“Besides tech, anything good that comes, leaves as soon as it gets successful,” McGee says. “I think San Jose and the South Bay really want you to mean it if you’re going to stick around, and that’s where I’m at right now. I’m trying to build my reason for staying.”
In a world in which people go about their lives in relative silence—and often suffer because of it—there are gems like Mighty Mike McGee, who put their hearts on the table with such bravery, wit and cool defiance that they can’t help but encourage others to do the same.
Below is a poem written by Mighty Mike McGee.
by Mighty Mike McGee
I rewrite her name across my chest
so that those who wish to break my heart
will know who to answer to later
She has no idea that I’ve taught my tongue to make pennies and
every time our mouths are to meet
I will slip coins to the back of her throat and
make a wish
my head on her belly might become home
like doubt to doubt resuscitation
because time is supposed to mean more than skin
She doesn’t know that I have taught my arms to close around her clocks
so they can withstand the fallout from her Autumn
She is so explosive
volcanoes watch her and learn
terrorists want to strap her to their chests
because she is a cause worth dying for
time will teach me to pick up her pieces
put her back together
and remind her to click her heels
but she doesn’t need a wizard to tell her that I was here all along
let’s catch the next tornado home
let us plant cantaloupe trees in our backyard
then one day I will remind you that I don’t like cantaloupe
and they don’t grow on trees
we can laugh about it
then we can plant things we’ve never heard of
because I’ve never heard of a woman
who can make flawed look so beautiful
the way you do
the word smitten is to how I feel about you
what a kiss is to romance
so maybe my lips to yours could be the penance to this confession
because I am the only one preaching your defunct religion
sitting alone at your altar
praising you out of faith
I cannot do this hard-knock life alone
You are all the softness a rock dreams of being
the mistakes the rain makes at picnics
when Mother Nature bears witness in much better places
Yes! I will gladly take on your ocean
just to swim beneath you
so that I can kiss the bends of your knees
in appreciation for the work they do
keeping your head above water
Originally published in Mighty Mike McGee’s collection, In Search of Midnight, Write Bloody Publishing, 2009.
To learn more about Mighty Mike McGee and his work, or to follow his Sweet Home San José newsletter, go to mightymikemcgee.com.