Those familiar with the spoken word poetry scene in Milwaukee will know the name Mario Willis. No, not ringin' a bell? Well how about Mario the Poet? Yeah, that's right, now you know him. He's the homegrown wordsmith who took a cue from the old-timey days when folks middle names were "the" and their last names were their professions, conveniently eliminating the need for the stale conversation starter "So, what do you do?"
For years Mario's been performing his poetry to crowds at open mics and slams, fine tuning his craft and building his way up to the coveted featured spot. He's also been a two time member of Milwaukee's National Slam Team, which, you may have guessed, took him all the way to the National Poetry Slam--that's the Spoken Word Superbowl, people!
To be honest, it's been too many moons since I've practiced the art of poetry or attended a slam, so when I began to see mentions on the Interwebs™ of his recent CD release, Don't Panic Be Awesome, ya know I just had to look into it.
Meeting at Fuel Cafe in Riverwest and settling down with some liquid caffeine, Mario told me that he and producer Artist Brown had originally started with about 30 poems. Over time they whittled those down to 15, plus one bonus track available only to those who buy the entire CD.
Don't Panic Be Awesome--FYI, NSFW--is a mix of live performance and produced tracks. As Mario stated, by listening to hundreds of recordings of other poets and through his own experience with his first CD, Forgiveness, he decided to go with a number of funny poems as those tend to convey the high energy of a live performance most effectively. For some of the serious poems, he chose to record over music to better create a mood.
With a deep, slightly gravely voice, Mario's performance style is powerful, dipping and rising where and when the words call for it. Speed of delivery varies throughout each piece, taking the listener on an exciting aural ride, but not so erratic as to produce dizziness and, therefore, a deafness to the words being spoken.
The CD begins with "A Polite Prayer Featuring Ms. Tee," a recording of a simple phone call from Mario to a fellow poet. Though he stated during our interview that he isn't a particularly religious person, he called to ask Ms. Tee to bless his CD with a prayer. In the recording, she tells him that she's not feeling well but Mario's persistent cajoling wins out, and the resulting track is the type of laughable back-and-forth--both profane and sacred--that can only occur between two very close friends.
The title track, a live recording, is among one of the strongest pieces, filled with observations on the contradictory nature of cultural commands that we live with daily, hanging precariously together through threads of the absurd. And, quite frankly, meeting the absurd with the absurd is the only sane response.
"A Letter from your Next X-Boyfriend" is hilariously sad as Mario channels the honest voice of a cheating, lying low-life no woman should ever spend a second on but many do. As he quipped to me, and I paraphrase, if a woman recognizes this guy as someone she's with Leave Now!
Mario is a prolific poet, writing everyday, and a vigorous voice in the community. By his admission, he is a believer in the 10,000 Hour Rule--unfamiliar readers should watch this short video of journalist/author Malcolm Gladwell discussing the concept with CNN's Anderson Cooper--often editing and perfecting his work on his mobile device of choice even before he steps off the stage.
Don't Panic Be Awesome is available for download here, and I highly recommend you buy the whole thing 'cause you'll never get the full Mario spoken word experience with just a few tracks. Peeps who want an actual physical copy should message Mario on his Facebook fan page. Also, a companion book, & Other Things To Remember, will be coming out soon, most likely in July, so keep your eyes peeled for that.
Bonus: You can sometimes catch Mario live at Linneman's Poets Monday, 1001 E. Locust Street, from 7:30-10pm, and listen to him and his pals yuck it up on There Goes The Neighborhood every Wednesday at 3:30pm on RiverwestRadio.com.