The Milwaukee Poet Laureate project, initiated in February 2000, is a program of the Milwaukee Public Library and funded by the Friends of the Milwaukee Public Library.
The project committee selects a local poet to serve as Milwaukee Poet Laureate for a two-year term. The poet laureate makes several guest appearances during the term, promoting poetry throughout the community.
2022-2024 Poet Laureate: Mario "The Poet" Willis
Mario “The Poet” Willis is a poet, podcaster and spoken word artist. A Milwaukee native, Mario has been featured throughout the city and the Midwest as a spoken word artist, writing guide, and performance coach. He is a two-time member of Milwaukee's National Poetry Slam Team; a Poetry Unplugged All-Star; a mainstay community member of one of the longest-running open mic venues in the city, Poet’s Monday at Linneman’s Riverwest Inn; and a curator of numerous open mic and writing series, to include “New Word Document” with Riverwest Public House and "PenGame Writing Workshops" with various cafes and venues. Mario is the co-creator and host of “Pancakes & Poetry,” a community celebration during Milwaukee's annual Bronzeville Week Festival.
Having come to poetry later in his life, Mario does not have a formal education in poetry (rather, he pursued secondary courses in computer science); Mario's understanding of craft and canon are largely autodidactic. For more than 16 years, he has studied regularly and extensively with several nationally recognized spoken word artists and award-winning poets, including Dasha Kelly Hamilton, Buddy Wakefield and Patricia Smith. Mario has published three chapbooks (“Love More Coffee, and Dreams” “Size Matters,” and “A Limited Engagement”) and produced two spoken word CDs (“Forgiveness” and “Don’t Panic, Be Awesome”). He also maintains a blog about poetry, performance and personal truth called “Don’t Panic, Be Awesome” (www.mariothepoet.wordpress.com)
Mario is a passionate Milwaukee native and father of three. He's a Brewers' fan, community activist, volunteer with Hunger Task Force, and a member of Autism Speaks (being the father of an autistic child). Mario ascribes to the philosophy that love is the only thing that can truly save you and forgiveness makes love that much easier. He has found that poetry could be the conduit to both. Mario’s motto “Don’t Panic, Be Awesome” has become his life’s work.
As part of "Lift Every Voice: Celebrating African American Poetry," Mario "The Poet " Willis reads Paul Laurence Dunbar’s “The Paradox” and “Theology,” and shares his own original poetry.