Since before he knew what a typewriter was, Chris Vitiello had a way with words.
As a child, the poet and communications strategist dictated poems to his parents aloud. Perhaps it was destiny that he would stumble upon a giant fox suit and grapple with the question posed by a 2013 viral video: What does the fox say?
Apparently, quite a lot. Vitiello handed out his 35,000th poem as the Poetry Fox this April. When he dons the vulpine costume— a gift from a relative, who gave it to him as a joke 11 years ago instead of tossing it into a dumpster— he tackles 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 dewy morning grass, perhaps to cool down from the heat of the fuzzy fox suit, he waited expectantly for poetry-seekers.
Within a few 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 the patrons, Vitiello pulled the costume over his head, entering what he calls “the smallest studio space in the world.”
The keys clattered loudly beneath the Fox’s fingers, which poked out from amber-colored sleeves. Roughly forty-five seconds later, he presented a complete poem. In his trademark style, the lines were “cut up all over the page,” deviating from standard structures such as sonnets or limericks. The brothers beamed as their father dropped a donation into his jar (labeled “TIPS in $$$ or live chickens”).
In his years as the Fox, Vitiello has heard prompts ranging from “pickle” and “sunrise” to “gun” and “change.” Though the words he receives vary, his role as the Fox is the same whether he’s booked at a charity event, a birthday party or a wedding. With a vintage typewriter by his side, he creates custom poetry on demand that has reached people from all walks of life.
When he’s not in costume, the only thing that gives away Vitiello’s alter ego is the fox tattoo inked on his left forearm. The D.C. 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 most recently, screenwriting and filmmaking. He’s a father of two young adult children.
“It’s always fun when you have a family member who does something kind of weird,” he said with a smile. “My kids have grown up with me being the Poetry Fox. So this is just 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 place for creatives including writers, performers and filmmakers.
“We’d have somebody playing some music and we’d be screening a film and we’d have some kind of activity. And this was just a night of several strange things going on,” he said.
“And I thought, ‘Oh, well, I’ll write and I can put [the fox costume] on and do it.’ You know, it was just sort of a very just spur of the moment, spontaneous kind of decision.” The Poetry Fox was born.
As early shows gained traction, audience members began asking him to perform at other gatherings. He now appears at upwards of 150 community events per year.
Chris Tonelli, author and founding editor of the independent poetry press Birds LLC, attended some of the Fox’s first gigs without knowing the identity of the larger-than-life canine at the typewriter. He was excited to find out that the Fox was also the author of Irresponsibility, a book he’d recently devoured.
The two connected through the Triangle’s poetry community and now work alongside one another in the library department at North Carolina State University. Tonelli described his colleague as “the model arts community citizen.”
“[Vitiello is] always saying yes, always trying new collaborations, always open to crazy ideas that will really be interesting to the community and will help the community. Very, very selfless in that way,” he said.
For instance, Vitiello created “The Cabinet” last year in the midst of the pandemic, inspired by Victorian fortune-telling cabinets. When he sits inside the seven-foot mahogany wardrobe, he is concealed completely from view. This sense of anonymity, he says, can foster meaningful connection. Passersby fill out cards with their fears, hopes, memories, or secrets and enter them into a slot. From inside, Vitiello types and returns a poetic, personal response.
The Fox is selfless, Tonelli noted. He gives away his work rather than adding to his own repertoire. And then there’s the sheer volume of poetry Vitiello has written as the Fox. An average poetry book, Tonelli said, is around 100 poems; the Fox has produced the equivalent of 350 books.
Some of his poems confront contemporary political issues, such as climate change, gun control and abortion rights. When he gives them away, he hopes that those who don’t see eye-to-eye find them thought-provoking, “both fulfilling and undermining expectations.” Though he has received some criticism for his political writing, he doesn’t take it to heart.
“I usually just write back saying, ‘It looks like we disagree on this.’ I’m not going to attack somebody as the Fox,” he laughed.
To Vitiello, the most memorable moments as the Fox are when he’s able to connect with his patrons beyond the surface level. He recalled a recent event where an attendee shared a deeply personal experience.
“He sat down and told me that his father had just recently passed away and he didn’t have anything else to say,” Vitiello said. “So I wrote him the poem and it was…I couldn’t tell you exactly what the poem was, but it was a really moving experience.”
He paused. “That’s a poem that connects me and him now for a long period of time. So, those are the memorable ones. It’s the interaction that’s memorable, not the poem.”
Vitiello plans on continuing his work as the Fox indefinitely, illuminating his patrons’ most defining moments. He composes lines about births and deaths, weddings and divorces, hopeful beginnings and bittersweet endings.
Vitiello sees certain common threads running through the human experience. It’s of no importance to him whether the recipient of his poems is a kindergartener or a grandmother.
“Everybody eats, everybody puts on clothes,” he said. “Everybody goes to sleep and wakes up. Everybody likes trees and birds. Everybody looks at the sky. There’s a huge number of shared experiences and…the Fox’s writings draw upon that strongly.”
At the market on Saturday, he was presented with the word “reflection.” He wrote:
don’t show you
and your thoughts
the winds die down
and the water
becomes a mirror
so you can see
your reflection at last
and know more
about who you are
until the calm
into the water
This story was published through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is produced by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
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