When Mighty Mike McGee, the National and World Poetry Slam Grand Champion, and Benjamin Henderson, the lead singer of one of your favorite bands Brother Grand, invite you to their house for a potluck of poetry, music and food -- well, you ask no questions and make it a date.
The event is called “Kitchen Session,” and the logo includes a guitar, a pen quill and a spork. The house rules are few, but strictly enforced: bring $3, a homemade dish to share, and your best attitude. The address is confidential to those invited who RSVP.
As it turns out, the house is near the core of downtown San Jose in a mellow neighborhood. It’s an unusually warm March evening, so there’s lots of people on the lawn and the front porch being respectfully quiet for neighbors. Entering the Victorian-inspired house, you see people hovering around tables full of homemade entrées, and being that it’s Pi Day, there are lots of sweets to choose from. As you glance around, there are people in all corners of the living room, including a few sunk deep into the cushions of the couch beneath the ginormous Ben Alexi painting of a charging knight -- a prized possession of Henderson’s. As you make your way towards the kitchen, you can hear McGee negotiating the signup list. It’s a full roster, so there will be two sessions tonight, each an hour long, each performer getting five minutes.
Of the 40 people in the house, less than half can find a spot to stand or sit on the community cushion on the floor. The others line the narrow hallway from the front door to the kitchen, having a clear shot of McGee on the makeshift stage known as “the block.” McGee welcomes everyone and reminds us all to pitch in our $3 which goes towards the night’s featured poets: Jason Bayani and Kim Johnson.
The unfolding evening is highly entertaining and fulfilling. Within the first hour, there's poetry, new songs, a young woman from Germany who performs her first poem written in English, a short story from the point of view (and voice) of a pug, and a very funny skit where Henderson tries to get a customer service rep (played by McGee) to correct a duplicate billing for a magazine subscription:
“I’d love to help you sir...”
“LOVE?! What do you know about love?!!” yells Henderson at the phallic bottle opener filling in as a phone. (It was funny because we've all been there.)
A few days later, I return to the house to talk with McGee and Henderson about Kitchen Sessions. The house is surprisingly airy with vaulted ceilings, hardwood floors and lots of natural light (and no sign of the jam-packed house just a day or so previous.)
McGee and Henderson are longtime friends, having met in early 2001 as their performance paths criss-crossed around San Jose. McGee was busy making a name for himself in the Bay Area as a rising star in the slam-poetry scene, and Henderson’s band at the time, Delta Activity, was as well-known for their progressive rock as they were for their gig posters that were wheat-pasted everywhere from San Francisco to Gilroy. McGee moved into the "Kitchen Session" house with Henderson and roommate David Ochoa last year after living in Worcester, MA and Portland, OR for a few years.
It didn’t take long for McGee to suggest to his roommates that he’d like to do a Kitchen Session out of their house. The original Kitchen Session began in 2009 while McGee was living in Worcester, MA. “Rent was cheap, but there was nothing to do, everything was far away -- and I don’t drive. But there were a ton of poets locally, and poets that were traveling would contact me because no one knew who the local organizers were, so I thought they could come to my house. We held the readings in the kitchen because it was the biggest room in the house.” McGee managed 20 monthly Kitchen Session events in Worcester, and as he moved around the country, he would start up a Kitchen Session in whatever city he currently resided in. Many of those are still going, or else the idea has been adopted by fellow poets wanting it in their hometown.
Hosting an event in your private residence has great benefits, but can also be unnerving. McGee sees the upside easily: “I get to practice my hosting in my own environment... 10 feet from where I sleep.” He admits, though, that there's also a vulnerability; “If you see me mess up here, it’s embarrassing.”
For Henderson, the home venue is a necessity of convenience as he juggles his solo act, his band Brother Grand (with bassist/composer Endika) and a busy graphic design business: “It helps me personally, and in a way, spiritually. It helps me give back to my community. I can’t hang out in cafes all month shooting the shit, but I can chop it up with a bunch of people at my house there to hang out. My to-do list is massive, and I wouldn’t otherwise be making it out to all these poets’ and musicians’ performances.”
The hosts agree that the first three events have been wildly successful. They’ve paid their featured artists more than promised, and the level of talent has been top-notch. But as they see more regular faces, there's a concern that it’ll become the usual crowd.
“As I see more regular people, I have a fear that this could very easily devolve into an open mic with the same 12 dudes,” Henderson says. But the two stay conscious of that possibility, and make sure that each Kitchen Session stays true to its original intention of performers debuting new works -- and that the lineup represents a cross section of artistic disciplines. “I don’t want to just focus on poetry. I want a collective show of everything you can imagine: a poem, a song, a story, comedy and a skit,” says McGee of his ideal vision for the event. Henderson adds that the requirement of the works being new "connects the crowd to some creative strand that is not generally exposed," and will keep the show fresh as well.
“It doesn’t need to grow,” Henderson says. “I felt an awesome pride in turning down (grant) money recently. Money can do nothing except make it worse. I see it as a sandbox... a soil starter to feed other things that are happening. There’s never enough things happening. We just need to maintain. We’re not profiting, there’s no other gain other than one night a month I get to be social and hang out and shoot the shit with a bunch of talented people and provide a place for the artists and performers to meet each other and pivot off into new friendships and hopefully new events.”
McGee and Henderson have committed themselves to the event being monthly, with a short break in the summer to accommodate their busy tour schedules. As more people find out about the event, the invitation list will become more critical and coveted. But as McGee says: “If you want to attend a Kitchen Session, find us and introduce yourself. We want to meet you!”