The Poetry Fox Speaks: Chris Vitiello on costumes, street poetry and shared humanity


Even before knowing what a typewriter was, Chris Vitiello knew how to handle words.

As a child, the poet and communications strategist dictated poems aloud to his parents. Maybe it was fate that he would stumble upon a giant fox costume and wrestle with the question posed by a viral video from 2013: WWhat does the Fox say ?

Apparently a lot. Vitiello distributed his 35,000th poem as Poetry Fox in April. When he puts on the vulpine costume – a gift from a relative, who gave it to him as a joke 11 years ago instead of throwing it in a dumpster – he tackles the themes of love, change, politics and even mortality.

On a recent Saturday, Vitiello sat behind a typewriter at the Durham Farmers’ Market. Barefoot in the morning dew grass, perhaps to cool off from the heat of the fuzzy fox suit, he looked forward to poetry lovers.

Within minutes, curiosity had drawn a father and his two young sons to the stand. The sons presented the fox with a single word. After chatting with clients, Vitiello slipped the suit over his head, entering what he calls “the smallest studio in the world.”

The keys clacked loudly under the Fox’s fingers, sticking out of the amber colored sleeves. About forty-five seconds later, he presented a complete poem. In his trademark style, lines were “cut across the page”, deviating from standard structures such as sonnets or limericks. The brothers beamed when their dad dropped a donation into his jar (labeled “TIPS in $$$ or Live Chickens”).

During his years as Fox, Vitiello heard prompts ranging from “pickle” and “sunrise” to “gun” and “change”. While the words he receives vary, his role as Fox is the same whether he’s reserved for a charity event, a birthday party, or a wedding. With a vintage typewriter by his side, he creates custom poetry on demand that has touched people from all walks of life.

When not in costume, the only thing that reveals Vitiello’s alter ego is the fox tattoo inked on his left forearm. The DC native is a published author and editor (“I have three books as a human, not as a fox,” he clarified). He has also ventured into other forms of street poetry and, more recently, screenwriting and filmmaking. He is the father of two young adult children.

“It’s always fun to have a family member do something weird,” he said with a smile. “My kids grew up with me as Poetry Fox, so that’s exactly what we do.

Vitiello, 53, had been an active member of Durham’s arts community for several years when the idea came to him. It was a weekend night at The Space, a downtown gathering spot for creatives, including writers, performers and filmmakers.

“We would have someone playing music and we would show a film and we would have some sort of activity. And it was just one night where several weird things were happening,” he said.

“And I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll write and I can put [the fox costume] and do it. You know, it was just kind of a very just spur of the moment, kind of a spontaneous decision. The Poetry Fox was born.

As the early shows gained traction, audience members began asking him to perform at other gatherings. He now appears at over 150 community events a year.

Chris Tonelli, author and founding editor of the independent poetry press Birds LLC, attended some of Fox’s early gigs without knowing the identity of the larger-than-life typewriter dog. He was delighted to learn that the Fox was also the author of Irresponsibilitya book he had just devoured.

The two connected through the Triangle poetic community and now work side-by-side in the library department at North Carolina State University. Tonelli described his colleague as “the model citizen of the artistic community”.

“[Vitiello is] always saying yes, always trying new collaborations, always open to crazy ideas that will be really interesting to the community and help the community. Very, very selfless in that way,” he said.

For example, Vitiello created “The Cabinet” last year amid the pandemic, inspired by Victorian fortune-telling cabinets. When seated inside the seven-foot mahogany cabinet, it is completely hidden from view. This sense of anonymity, he says, can foster meaningful connection. Passers-by fill cards with their fears, hopes, memories or secrets and write them into a slot. From within, Vitiello types and sends back a poetic and personal response.

The fox is selfless, Tonelli noted. He gives his work rather than enriching his own repertoire. And then there’s the volume of poetry that Vitiello wrote as Fox. An average poetry book, Tonelli said, has about 100 poems; the Fox produced the equivalent of 350 books.

Some of his poems address contemporary political issues, such as climate change, gun control, and abortion rights. When he gives them, he hopes those who disagree will find them empowering, “both satisfying and undermining their expectations”. Although he has received some criticism for his political writings, he does not take them to heart.

“I usually just respond by saying, ‘It looks like we disagree on that. I’m not going to attack someone as Fox,” he laughed.

For Vitiello, the most memorable moments as Fox are when he is able to connect with his clients beyond the surface level. He recalled a recent event where a participant shared a deeply personal experience.

He sat down and told me that his father had just passed away and he had nothing else to say,” Vitiello said. “So I wrote the poem to him and it was… I couldn’t tell you exactly what the poem was, but it was a really moving experience.”

He stopped himself. “It’s a poem that has linked me to him for a long time. So these are the most memorable. It’s the interaction that’s memorable, not the poem.

Vitiello plans to continue his work as the Fox indefinitely, illuminating his clients’ most defining moments. He composes lines about births and deaths, marriages and divorces, hopeful beginnings and bittersweet endings.

Vitiello sees certain common threads that run through the human experience. It does not matter to him whether the recipient of his poems is a kindergarten child or a grandmother.

“Everyone eats, everyone dresses,” he said. “Everyone goes to bed and wakes up. Everyone loves trees and birds. Everyone is looking at the sky. There are a lot of shared experiences and … Fox’s writing draws heavily from them.

At the Saturday market, he was introduced to the word “reflection”. He wrote:

rough waters

don’t show yourself

your face

whipped waves

foam

by the storms

to master

your name

and your thoughts

but soon

the winds are dying

The sky

erase

and water

becomes a mirror

so you can see

finally your reflection

and find out more

about who you are

Wait

All night long

until calm

in the morning

so what

look long

in water

This story was published through a partnership between the INDIA and The 9th Street Newspaperproduced by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.


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