From Bad to Verse

People who’ve had too much to drink sometimes walk into walls, but they seldom walk into new careers. The 33-year-old Hyde Park poet who calls himself Mario is a notable exception: One night in 1994, after tying one on, he went to HotHouse on Milwaukee for a panel discussion on hip-hop sponsored by the Guild Complex. Michael Warr, then executive director of the organization, was sitting at the door and asked him for a donation. Mario was broke, but the Guild doesn’t turn people away, and Mario was allowed in. Soon afterward he joined the Guild as a volunteer. Warr was impressed by his drive, and two years later he hired Mario as an events programmer. Recalls Mario, “He saw something in me that I didn’t even see in myself.”

Since then Mario has become a key player in the local arts scene, and eight months ago Warr’s successor, poet Julie Parson-Nesbitt, named him artistic manager of the Guild. He lines up artists for events, organizes program meetings, coordinates activities with other arts organizations, and serves as house manager and master of ceremonies for the group’s basement space at the Chopin Theatre. He’s also extended his reach into the larger community, working with kids in the public schools and in programs like Gallery 37 and Young Chicago Authors. In May, YCA gave him its Wallace Douglas Distinguished Service Award, and in June he collaborated with poet Marvin Tate and Peter Taub, director of performance programs at the Museum of Contemporary Art, on the MCA’s tribute to the late Curtis Mayfield.

Growing up on the south side, Mario was orphaned at an early age; his mother died of pneumonia when he was seven, and a heart attack took his father two years later. He was raised by his sister, Diane Cade, who “put the fear of God in me on many an occasion. She sacrificed a lot to take care of me.” Mario inherited his father’s love of jazz and listened to the radio constantly–especially WBBM AM, WVON, WLS AM, and WIND. He wanted to be a radio personality, but he was a weak student at Chicago Vocational, losing himself in pot and booze. After graduating in 1985 he bused tables at the Executive House Hotel and sold subscriptions for the Sun-Times; in 1987 he enrolled in the Columbia School of Broadcasting (now defunct), and a year later he earned an associate degree in radio and TV broadcasting.

He spent the next four years bumming around, trying to get his act together. He lived with his sister’s family in Harvey, drank a lot, listened to Public Enemy, read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Finally, in the summer of 1992, he landed a job as a disk jockey at WHYZ, a station in Greenville, South Carolina, hosting gospel and easy-listening shows. But he and his boss clashed frequently, and after two months he was fired. He caught a bus back to Chicago and sank into a job as a telemarketer.

Mario remembers one glimmer of hope during that period, when he saw poet Haki Madhubuti, the publisher of Third World Press, on public television. Madhubuti read some of his poetry and discussed race relations, but what struck Mario was his comment that people who wanted to make an impact on others had to straighten out their own lives first. Later he heard about Spices Jazz Bar, a place on Franklin that hosted poetry readings, and the first night he dropped in, Madhubuti was reading. The next day Mario started writing poetry.

Before long he was taking the stage at Spices to read a poem about John Coltrane. He was shaking and told the audience he was nervous. “I got so much love from everybody.” He continued to write, studied other performers, and honed his skills at Spices, Lit-X, and the Guild Complex. He grew dreadlocks and dropped his last name to make a break from his directionless past. When a friend pointed out that he was writing for applause, he decided to concentrate on what he wanted to say rather than what the poetry crowd wanted to hear. “I don’t write epic pieces, everything is short and concise,” he says. “And it’s more social stuff than ‘the birds fly.’ Although I’m very aware of the birds, I try to let the birds fly without me writing about them. I don’t want to bring them down by putting them on paper.”

A typical example, included in the 1999 collection Power Lines: A Decade of Poetry From Chicago’s Guild Complex, is “Just Aim and Shoot: A Love Poem,” about a small girl he once saw on 51st Street carrying a toy pistol: “The sun kisses her silver 9mm / With the fashionable orange tip / Courtesy of the Barbie genocide collection.”

Though he’s come a long way in the last eight years, Mario says he doesn’t get the respect he deserves from some people in the arts community. “They shy away from people who have something to say, because what sells for them is the bullshit, just like in music. If I was talking about how much sex I was having or how many banks I robbed or who I stuck up, I would be the darling of the poetry community. But I don’t talk about that kind of stuff. I write about little girls who carry toy guns.” He acknowledges that he has a reputation as a hothead. “Brenda Matthews used to call me ‘the angry poet.’ It’s not that I’m angry, it’s that I have a lot of passion. When I start talking about my people, I get real passionate. I see where we can be better, and I see why we’re not better. I’ve gotten angry in public a few times. People are afraid of the truth. I don’t bring a lot of fluff to what I am saying.”

Yet Warr and Parson-Nesbitt say he’s strengthened the Guild Complex, that he knows how to bring together different people and groups, an asset for a multicultural organization that presents a hundred-odd performances a year. “Mario is effective at the Guild Complex because he can work with people of so many backgrounds,” says Parson-Nesbitt. “To be able to get along with a wide variety of people is unusual.”

He also knows how to keep numerous projects in play: in January the Guild and the Jazz Insitute of Chicago will cosponsor a festival celebrating the musicality of poetry, to feature Sonia Sanchez; later in the year he’ll publish a collection of his poems and essays; and he’ll be featured on guitarist Fareed Haque’s forthcoming CD tribute to Pablo Neruda (along with Regie Gibson, Kahil El’Zabar, and Sherrille Lamb). Mario says he’s satisfied to see the fruits of his labor, whether or not they draw any public accolades. “I don’t actively campaign for any of that crap. I’m too busy listening to Steve Dahl, listening to the Score, reading the newspaper, being on-line, screwing around with my Play Station. If people recognize [my work], that’s cool. And if they don’t, that’s cool too.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.