Chris Vitiello: Writer, Poet, Critic and Performer

Creatives in Conversation: I believe that we can learn so much from each other and I am fascinated by the ways in which artists of all mediums move through the creative process. Each month I feature a different local artist as we discuss the challenges and joys that come from accessing and living with their creativity.

Photo: Kevin Thurston

Photo: Kevin Thurston

Chris Vitiello (@chrisvitiello) is a writer, poet, critic, and performer based in Durham. He has a writing MFA from Naropa University and has written three books of poetry, the most recent being Obedience (Ahsahta Press, 2012). He took his performance installation, “The Language is Asleep” to ArtPrize9 in 2017, where he wrote and gave away nearly 12,000 one-line poems on dictionary pages over a 28-day endurance performance in the Grand Rapids Art Museum. He is also the Poetry Fox (@poetryfox), writing custom, on-demand poems on vintage typewriters at events over the last six years. His critical writing garnered a 2017 Rabkin Prize for Arts Journalism and he's an award-winning chief contributor of art and performance criticism at Indy Week. He has curated exhibitions at art spaces including the Ackland Art Museum, The Carrack, and the Fruit.

What does it mean to you to live creatively or to live life alongside your creativity?

I don't make a separation between life and creativity. I never like to do the same thing twice; it irks me. I’ll take two different routes to the same grocery store (laughs). I’m a little paranoid about going stale in any facet of life so I’m constantly pushing myself to do things different ways, what those different ways mean, and not even figuring out the optimal way, just figuring out all the ways.

It might be more mathematical than anything else: “Let’s determine all the variables and determine all their combinations.” I’m constantly making stuff. I grew up with stuff makers. My mother is one of those people who can do anything; she can sew, she can make stained glass windows, she can paint, she can make sculpture. And my father was a civil servant for the government who can understand the interaction of parts and engines. So I had broad based training. I guess I just understand making a poem or making a pot of soup as pretty much the same creative activity.

It’s probably a bit of a flaw as well as an ability but I’ve never been afraid to do stuff. I just dive in.

That sounds very liberating.

Well that also means I don’t acquire a high level of skill at things, generally. (laughs) I’m minimally competent at doing most things. But so what? I like to be able to do lots of different things. And the more things you know how to do the more you can re-apply those skills to other activities.

From a performance of "TypeFace" with Heather Gordon at the North Carolina Museum of Art

From a performance of "TypeFace" with Heather Gordon at the North Carolina Museum of Art

This leads to my next question. You’re the type of person who does lots of different things. You have a poetry practice. You’re also the Poetry Fox.  You also do some performance art. How do all those things work with or against each other and how do they all inform each other?

The Poetry Fox has really changed everything else that I do. It has opened everything up. First of all, from a poetry standpoint it’s an access [point] to a completely different audience from what I had trained myself and gotten an MFA degree to do. And that's not to qualitatively judge it -- it’s just that writing poetry for an occasion as opposed to a manuscript or publication is a very different impulse. And writing a poem for a kid or for someone who might not have read a poem in twenty five years since they were in high school  … these are just different use cases for that text and I’ve had to adjust and open up and be more receptive to a person and a moment to make a poem for them.

The model I had [previously] in my life is: you get everybody in your life to go to sleep so you can get absolute quiet time in a dark room with a lamp and WORK ON IT. And then you work on it for years and make adjustments and change this line break and this word maybe and then the nineteenth time you look at it you have to edit it and etcetera …. And I still can practice [that way] but I just don’t much. Writing has become performance for me through the Poetry Fox and that has just domino-effected so much of the other work that I do.

I am writing for site-specific situations much more now and so writing for me has become more context specific. This is how I think about writing now. Y’know, I don’t have a style. You just write the way you need to write for that context.

So it sounds like that’s been liberating you from a lot of the structures put on you by academia?

Chris Vitiello as the Poetry Fox (Photo: Jennifer Hicks)

Chris Vitiello as the Poetry Fox (Photo: Jennifer Hicks)

It’s more like I don’t have to try to obey one particular convention or pit conventions against each other. I can just shift and change as needed for the situation.

The Fox has really opened that up. You get a line of people and they are all completely different from each other and they all need a different poem. And you just make a quick read [of the situation] and then make a poem and do it again and again and again. You just can’t have noise in that moment, there’s no time to sit there and think about it and make decisions, you just have to make an initial decision and then go.

So I tend to organize an exhibition or an event in the same way. Hey lets generate a whole bunch of ideas, try to do all of them, some of them aren’t going to work out and they’ll fall away and we’ll let them go, and we’ll have something great at the end.

And Durham – that’s in the DNA of this place. There are collaborators here that can fall into those roles happily and easily.

To be so present with your work the way that you are sounds like it would be nice.

Just before coming here today I was having lunch with a poet and critic Lightsey Darst and she was going to a large annual academic conference called AWP [Association of Writers and Writing Programs] and she kind of didn’t want to go because it was “the poetry world.”

So we were griping a little bit about it and talking about how our processes, because they have much more relevance to every aspect of our lives, like cooking or working or parenting – these are all just the same kind of activity underneath – and that agonizing process just doesn’t work. It’s not a life process, it actually cuts against life and we just don’t need it anymore.

Part of why I’m even having these conversations is to help others get back to and recognize the intuition that comes with writing and I think that’s a great example.

You have to learn all the conventions and then encounter and create the reasons to discard those conventions or at least recognize them as a convention that you can snap into or set aside and snap into something else. And it takes a long time to be fluent in that way, to be able to move in and out of a conventional mode of writing or an unconventional mode of writing. It takes a while and there’s no fast route to it.

I’m constantly making stuff. I grew up with stuff makers ... I guess I just understand making a poem or making a pot of soup as pretty much the same creative activity.
— Chris Vitiello
"The Language is Asleep" installation project at Art Prize at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

"The Language is Asleep" installation project at Art Prize at the Grand Rapids Art Museum

How does your performance art, such as The Language is Asleep installation, interact with your poetry practice and the Poetry Fox?

I find that I don’t write poems, y’know? I have friends who are writing a poem and the next day they get up and start another poem and they hone it until it’s finished. And I tend to write in these large project oriented chunks and I’m always thinking of how they’re going to occur in real time. What they'll sound like. I really like reading by whispering into a bullhorn. It’s just this great, disorienting sound that’s a little creepy. But it’s terrific. Thinking about the way the poem will be read or performed shapes the writing.

But then so much of the writing that I do in performance is spontaneous, was done in the moment of it. I took an installation performance to Art Prize in the fall called The Language is Asleep.

I was in a large gallery space in the Grand Rapids Art Museum for a month, for ten-hour performance days. For eight of those hours the walls were covered in dictionary pages with these one-line poems on them, and I was in the room with thousands of people coming through. They’d give me a word and I would immediately write a one-line poem on a dictionary page and tear it out and give it to them.

The “piece of writing” is three or four words. Sometimes people would say, “I don't think this is a poem” and I would just tell them that’s not important and it’s not the point. OK, who cares? It’s not a poem. It just is.

From "The Language is Asleep" performance installation

From "The Language is Asleep" performance installation

So it made this space where people could come in and have these meaningful and personal interactions with these little bits of language. And it was very easy to ignore the [one-line poems] that weren’t meaningful to you and hone in on the ones that engage you. So it ended up being this super active space and really emotionally charged for a lot of people.

And it was kind of transformative for me too. I felt like I wasn’t that much of a participant in it. I was just this generator. With such a tiny piece of writing – what’s the content of a three-word poem? – there’s not really content there. Someone else comes in and produces the meaning. I just found a way to be writing constantly and stayed out of peoples’ way.

You don't avoid decision-making. But it frees you from all the stoppages that writers so often experience. They just weren’t in the room.

What’s been your biggest creative challenge and how did you move through it?

(laughs) This is presuming that I’ve moved through it.

I think just in life there are things I’m bad at that I could be good at. But I’ve let myself slide on it my whole life. Like doing taxes or taking care of a house. So balancing is my challenge. I will not cure myself of over-committing to things because I get excited about an idea or someone wants to collaborate and I just want to say yes to all of it. I like that about myself, that I say yes to too much stuff, but then you get stressed out and fall behind on other things that occasionally humiliate you.

I don't know that I’ll ever figure the balance out between creative projects and daily life.

Throughout your creative journey did you ever have any beliefs as a young person that you then felt differently about when you got older?

When I was younger, like a lot of artists, I thought about building a career, becoming famous, receiving accolades. I certainly wanted to succeed and wanted to feel that ego rush when you do succeed.

When I moved to Durham in 1994 a lot of my friends moved to the Bay Area. And I was so consumed with jealousy for years because I was convinced they were out there where all the poetry stuff was going on. And I was sulky and feeling sorry for myself. And it just took me awhile to shift into maturity. It’s actually about creating the environment that you want to live in yourself [and that means] committing to being here, finding other people, building artistic relationships and deep friendships and starting projects together.

[At the end of the day] nobody was getting famous! It’s so random that somebody gets famous. And I don't even know what fame and poetry is exactly, I can’t describe that.

Art is ultimately decision making with stuff
— Chris Vitiello

So it was the realization that one’s creative work has to be woven into a community to matter in any way shape or form to oneself or to other people.

What are some creative resources that you recommend?

I try to read super widely. I start my days really early in the morning in the dark reading on my phone. And I’ll start with the New York Times and some art review websites.

There was this show called Alive from Off Center and it was this seminal show in the eighties of this New York and New Wave punk and performance art stuff. So there’d be a Talking Heads video and a Laurie Anderson thing and a Bill Viola art piece. It was just this mish mash of weird art. And you need to run into some of these things.

I went to grad school in Boulder Colorado and at that time this experimental filmmaker called Stan Brakhage was teaching at the University of Colorado at Boulder. It’s this totally other cinematic tradition, non-narrative work. He’s this giant of the experimental cinema world projecting films and talking about it. It was totally formative and totally sheer luck. I didn't even realize who he was until a year into school.

I’ve never been much of a popular culture consumer. I’ve always been a contrarian, I want to cut across it. So I’m predisposed to see those and dive into them. There are too many to name. I still get my mind blown every couple of days. It’s important to have your world expanding and to be constantly surprising yourself.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to be more creative in their day to day?

You just have to schedule it and commit to it. Put reminders in your phone if you have to. You can’t postpone the activity. Every once in awhile I’ll meet someone who says they’re not creative. But I think everybody is creative. You’re constantly making aesthetic decisions all the time. Like, why did you pick out those shoes? That's a creative act. Although maybe it’s not the act of a maker, but it’s still the act of a decision maker and art is ultimately decision making with stuff.

This interview has been edited and condensed.