Arts & Culture

He wants to take his performance poetry to the next level, and he’ll need lots of dictionaries

Chris Vitiello, a Durham author, is using Kickstarter to fund his ambitious performance-poetry installation “The Language Is Asleep.” In “The Language Is Asleep,” Vitiello appears as “sleeping writer,” scrawling poetry on dictionary pages.
Chris Vitiello, a Durham author, is using Kickstarter to fund his ambitious performance-poetry installation “The Language Is Asleep.” In “The Language Is Asleep,” Vitiello appears as “sleeping writer,” scrawling poetry on dictionary pages. Courtesy of Chris Vitiello

Most artists have to fit their passion projects in around their day jobs while also spending enormous amounts of time and energy chasing money from contests and grants.

But sometimes, winning a monetary prize means the fundraising is just beginning.

Durham writer Chris Vitiello, for example, won “Pitch Night” a few months ago for his interactive-poetry project, “The Language Is Asleep.” That earned him $5,000 toward the expenses required to take the ambitious performance to the prestigious ArtPrize Festival, which is Sept. 20-Oct. 8 in Grand Rapids, Mich.

But $5,000 is only a fraction of what Vitiello will need to pull off “The Language Is Asleep,” so he’s using a Kickstarter crowd-funding campaign to raise another $10,000. As of mid-day Wednesday, he was at just over $7,700 from 125 contributors, with nine days to go.

“This is a large-scale project, and I’ll also have to take time off work,” said Vitiello, 48, who lives in Durham and works as a communication strategist at NC State libraries in Raleigh. “So there’s also a lot of supplies to buy – I’ve spent hundreds of dollars on Sharpies alone – and it was also important to me to pay people for working on it.”

In “The Language Is Asleep,” Vitiello appears as “sleeping writer,” scrawling poetry on dictionary pages. It was originally part of a performance piece called “This Is Not a Novel” at Durham’s Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern. Ultimately, “The Language Is Asleep” is a meditation on truth and the many manipulations our culture puts language through.

For the festival installation in Michigan, “Asleep” has been scaled dramatically upward. Among other things, it requires dictionaries – lots and lots of dictionaries.

“I’ve accumulated about 180 so far and I’m still looking for more,” Vitiello said. “I write one-line poems on each page and tear them out. The basic idea is to install them in a large gallery space, covering walls and floors with already-written pages people can pick up. Right now I’m in overdrive, writing four hours a day in dictionaries, and I’ve got probably 50 people in the area copying them, too.”

That’s where the numerous permanent markers come into play.

“We all work on each other’s things, doing favors, and nobody makes any money,” he said. “But this time, I wanted to actually pay people. Not a lot, but something, and it’s exciting to inject money into our community for a project like this.”

Ultimately, Vitiello hopes to take 100,000 already-written pages to Michigan to start with. He’ll also write live at the festival, often using single-word prompts from visitors.

“When I do this, one word I get a lot is ‘faith,’ ” Vitiello said. “I have problems with the idea of faith, and sometimes I’ll write about the dangers of blind faith. Most people who give the word don’t want to hear that.”

PoetryFox
Chris Vitiello dresses as the Poetry Fox, a street poet. Vitiello, wearing a fox costume, sits at a typewriter and composes poems for people on request. Photo by J. Caldwell

The Poetry Fox

The other part of “The Language Is Asleep” occurs when Vitiello periodically appears as the street poet “Poetry Fox.” Wearing a fox costume, he’ll sit at a typewriter and compose poems for people on request. It’s something he’s done for about five years.

“As kind of a joke, a relative gave me this fox mascot outfit that had been left behind and never picked up,” Vitiello said. “I thought, ‘I have to do something with this. How can I just put it in the attic?’ I’d always wanted to write street poetry, so it’s been a good match.”

ArtPrize reportedly drew more than 500,000 people last year, and Vitiello will be set up in the high-profile venue of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. The festival has cash prizes, too, including a $200,000 Juried Grand Prize – which another artist from Durham, Stacey Kirby, won last year with a project called “The Bureau of Personal Belonging.”

If lightning strikes and Vitiello earns the grand prize, he’ll have put in a lot of work to get it. Between the handwritten dictionary-page poems and the typewritten “Poetry Fox” ones, he reckons he’ll compose between 500 and 700 short poems each day, unedited.

“I also have a poetry practice that’s not the fox, where I rewrite and edit heavily,” said Vitiello, whose published books include 2012’s “Obedience.” “You publish a book, you may never hear about it again except for a review or two. But the Poetry Fox is a release valve for the tension and solitude of that process. It’s great to set down, get a prompt, write a poem, hand it over and do another. The instant feedback is great.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

Details

For more on local author/poet Chris Vitiello’s “The Language Is Asleep” fundraiser, go to kickstarter.com and search for “The Language is Asleep.” Learn more about the Poetry Fox at facebook.com/poetryfox.

ArtPrize is Sept. 20-Oct. 8 in Grand Rapids, Mich. For details, see artprize.org.

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