There is something wholesome about street poetry, a practice where poets create works on the spot. Poets sit behind typewriters, ready to pound out a piece by request at art fairs or private events. Some poets find inspiration in a given word, others in a brief description. Whatever the participant has to provide the poet in terms of a theme is translated through the heavy click of typewriter keys, taking the shape of a unique, made-to-order poem.
“Street poetry has been around for a while, but I think it has taken off recently because there’s a whole movement around typewriters,” said Matt Roth, a by-commission poet in North Raleigh who runs a practice called Poems Typed Fresh. “There's a quality about digital culture ... but when you turn around the other direction, to analog, there's something so deliberate about that, that I think it feels revolutionary.”
Roth said that street poetry is enhanced by the tools street poets use, namely, the typewriter.
“There's something about poetry and typewriters that go together,” Roth said. “You do something deliberately antithetical to it [when you type it]. Poetry’s purpose isn't to say something clear, its purpose is to sound a certain way or a look a certain way. It takes you out of the flow of communication through utilitarian language and into an artistic expression or creative experience.”
As if practicing street poetry with a typewriter isn’t bold enough in itself, a Raleigh poet found a way to bring in another dimension: a fox suit.
Chris Vitiello is the man behind the mascot. The author of three books, freelance writer and NCSU Libraries’ communication strategist, Vitiello occasionally participates in street poetry events in full fox garb.
Initially dumpster-bound, the fox suit was an abandoned casualty of a street festival organized by a relative of Vitiello. Fortunately, it instead made for a perfect gag Christmas gift. And like that, it was born into a new purpose: a medium for a unique communication.
“When you get something like that, you have to play with it, you have to do something fun with it,” Vitiello said. “It’s such an unusual object to have.”
But the jump from joke to Raleigh poem scene notoriety is undoubtedly significant. Something about the suit piqued Vitiello’s interest — some quality of it seemed to solve the dissatisfaction he felt when writing street poems.
“People look at you with suspicion [when writing a poem],” Vitiello said. “People are intimidated by poems and poetry sometimes. They just don't know what it is or they don't want to take the time to understand it. But if there's somebody in a giant fox suit ... they forget to be intimidated and just want to know what the hell you're doing. I thought [wearing the suit] would be a fun thing to do, and weird, and people would be curious about it — that it would be kind of disarming. It could be a fun interaction, it could be a safe interaction.”
The suit draws a curious audience to the table. The next step is the key to a unique piece: giving Vitiello a word. From there, he has around 5 seconds to start typing. Considering he usually has a line of people waiting, he doesn’t have much time to work.
“It's such a fast process that I'm not really aware of much of anything,” Vitiello said. “It's just diving into it: word, poem, thanks and a hug, maybe an Instagram photo. That's really the whole process.”
However, the brevity of each experience doesn’t translate to something impersonal. In many cases, it’s quite the opposite. The nature of street poetry lends itself to interpersonal connections in an uncommon way.
“The great thing about the practice of the Poetry Fox as opposed to normal poetic practice is you have your audience right in front of you,” Vitiello said. “It is a warm-blooded human being, a single solitary individual and you just pick up a feel from them. I write directly to them; it's a time, and person, specific artwork that's made in that moment.”
The venue is also responsible for the feel of a Poetry Fox poem. From a kid’s birthday party (expect something bubbly) to a more rowdy gig (expect some obscenities), Vitiello can modify a poem without losing any of the street poem experience. Some venues hold more emotion than others, though. Vitiello has written at an annual Duke Hospital event where staff and patients can request poems.
“Those are really emotionally charged,” Vitiello said. “They are people who are literally dying and being given a poem. So there a lot of tears, and hugs at those kind of events.”
He refers to one experience in particular.
“There was a time when a woman said that the words that she had for me were ‘Star’ and ‘Sun,’ and I asked her if they were names,” Vitiello said. “Her daughter was in the hospital, she said, and [her daughter] had twins named Star and Sun. Star had died during the childbirth ... I wrote a poem for her talking about how Sun’s out all day and the Stars still come out at night. We just held each other afterward and cried. I think she needed to find some way to cry, and that was a way for her to get to get some of that out. That was a pretty heavy moment.”
Vitiello is still active in the poetry scene, and he intends for it to remain that way.
“I love it; I wish every poet could have a turn in the suit,” Vitiello said. “Being able to interact with the reader is something that not a lot of poets get the opportunity to do and the fox is a pretty unique way to do that. It has transformed my own poetic practice completely, and it is a lot of fun. It's good to be able to be generous with your work and not have to feel like you're just working inside your own personal brain.”
The Poetry Fox and Matthew Roth will both be making appearances at SPARKcon in Downtown Raleigh, Sept. 15-18, at Kings*.
*Editor's Note: This article originally referred to Kings with an incorrect name.