Adjacent to Santa Clara Mission Cemetery is an eclectic art studio called Studio Bongiorno.
Once The California Monument Company, the gallery is owned by local Santa Clara artist, Phil Bongiorno,who has transformed the space into a unique and surreal hub for both the local and traveling artist community.
On this evening of August 20, 2016, he and Mike McGee–a professional speaker, performer, slam and spoken-word poet, and comedian who won the National Poetry Slam Individual Grand Championship in 2003, the Individual World Poetry Slam Championship in 2006, and has appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, NPR, and CBC–host their monthly workshop, pot-luck and reading called the Burning Tale.
A writer’s workshop starts things off in the back patio before the event moves inside, where a packed room of participants admire and interact with the other poets while awaiting their turn to share their pieces.
Bongiorno says, “This is a hub for wanderers, weirdos, and sickos. There isn’t anything else like it in the whole area. People love this gallery because it provides a safe place where anyone can feel open and to feel comfortable and safe expressing their vulnerabilities.”
In a crowded room with mannequins, old artifacts, and surreal paintings for sale, he says, “It is about respect here. For some people it is overwhelming. But many people find the event to the best thing they do all month. When people are here they get real happy to be on this side of the fence.”
Out in front of the venue, Mighty Mike Magee (as he professionally goes by) is collecting donations, laughing with some attendees, and passing around a mailing list and a signup sheet for prospective readers. He says, “It’s all about the homie-vibe. We are like the AA without the quitters.”
In the gallery, 60 or so people sit in chairs facing toward the audience-level stage where McGee ushers in the evening. He kicks off with a poem narrating his encounters working at a franchise convenience store, before he opens the stage to an older women who reads from her poetry collection.
The studio cafe is situated behind an old bank-teller’s wall that was installed sometime ago, where Bongiorno occasionally serves wine, soft drinks, and other snacks in between the acts. He says, “We get people of all ages and backgrounds. There are some folks who are traveling, walking by who make there way in and end up staying throughout the whole night. There isn’t one certain group that regularly attends. It is very diverse every time.”
A young woman from Los Angeles stops by to do a comedy routine in between her multi-state college tour and making a new video to be released on Funny or Die. The headlining act is a spoken-word poet and activist from Toronto, Canada who vividly reads pieces on her experiences growing up as a transgender.
Everyone stays engaged throughout the event that extends late into the night, and each of the participants has a fair amount of time to read their pieces.
The lights of the venue shine out onto the darkened residential street and the cemetery fence. A sign above the gallery reads: Embracing the Light and Dark Within Us All.
“Some of my greatest breakthroughs were in my darkest times,” says Bongiorno. “The best way to find the light is through the dark. I hold to the studies that say that the more we embrace death, the more we live more fulfilled lives.”
The next Burning Tale is Saturday, Sept. 17 featuring Los Gatos Poet Laureate Erica Goss. For information visit www.facebook.com/groups/burningtale. For information about Studio Bongiorno, visit www.studiobongiorno.com. For more events and readings by Mighty Mike McGee visit http://www.mikemcgee.net/.