Miller Aud-cast Episode 31: Wendy Spitzer aka Felix Obelix
Hello and welcome to Aud-cast #31. We’re grateful you’re with us, and for this aud-cast, we are featuring “Pieces of Grief: Loss in a Pandemic” from Wendy Spitzler, aka Felix Obelix, the latest finalist for the 2021 Miller Audio Prize in Audio Documentary. We want to note up top that the piece can be emotionally intense, and there are mentions of death and loss. Listener discretion is advised.
Wendy Spitzer, aka Felix Obelix, is an inquiry-based interdisciplinary artist with a diverse output that spans music composition and performance, visual and community artmaking, audio, research, and modes of participatory inquiry. Her projects often explore themes of time and memory and are executed collaboratively. She has a Bachelor of Music in Performance from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (USA) and a Master of Music in Creative Practice from Goldsmiths College, University of London (UK). After time spent in Prague and London, she now lives and makes art in central North Carolina. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram @felixobelix and find out more on her website: felixobelix.com.
“Pieces of Grief: Loss in a Pandemic” is the third segment of a seven-segment audio documentary on grief and loss that premiered online in October 2020. The piece integrates field recordings; anonymous voicemails from community members experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic; archival interviews from folks who survived the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic; and original music composed, performed, and recorded by Wendy Spitzer, also known under her artist moniker Felix Obelix. For the voicemail portions, she set up an anonymous hotline and asked the public to leave messages talking about their experiences with grief during the pandemic. Voices from these two global outbreaks, almost 100 years apart, sit next to each other: the listener is invited to compare and contrast these voices, as well as experience the collapse of the two tragedies across time. As the pandemic recedes, the piece also serves (and will serve into the future) as a kind of auditory time capsule of our months in limbo.
All seven segments and more information about the project can be found at: felixobelix.com/piecesofgrief
Stick around after the piece to hear contest editor Bailey Boyd and managing editor Marc McKee consider the piece, and weigh its artistry, its honoring of the spectrum of loss in the wake of the pandemic, and the optimism of such an artistic and humane gesture.
Thanks for being with us on Miller Aud-cast #31, featuring “Pieces of Grief: Loss in a Pandemic” from Wendy Spitzler, aka Felix Obelix. Learn more about her and her project at felixobelix.com. Miller Aud-cast 32 is on the way, so stay tuned. Thanks to the Missouri Review contest editor, Bailey Boyd, and to Patricia Miller, for her generous support for the Miller Audio Prize.
Finally, TMR is open for submissions year-round, and we remain dedicated to discovering and publishing the best contemporary writing in fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Be heard. Give us the opportunity to discover you: subscribe or submit your work today! Learn more at missourireview.com.
2020 Miller Audio Prize Runner-Up in Humor: “Quarantine Careers: Voiceover Edition” by Tess Adams
We are so excited to share “Quarantine Careers: Voiceover Edition” by Tess Adams, which was selected by 2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the runner-up this year in the Humor category.
Tess Adams is a Connecticut-based writer, singer, and actor. She is currently a rising senior at Quinnipiac University double majoring in English and Theater with a minor in Business. Other honors and recognitions include Wilder Short Fiction Prize Honorable Mention, Alpha Psi Omega National Theatre Honor Society, Sigma Tau Delta National English Honor Society, and Quinnipiac University Honors Program. She hopes this little quarantine project brings you some joy!
Listen to “Quarantine Careers: Voiceover Edition” below:
“Quarantine Careers: Voiceover Edition” arose out of an assignment for one of my spring semester classes, The Audio Narrative. Being an actor, I was simultaneously brainstorming ways I might find work or be artistically engaged during quarantine; one of those ways happened to be voiceover gigs. In researching how to “break in” to the voiceover industry, I found that I needed to put together a reel. I was then struck with the idea of creating this piece – an actress attempting to DIY a voiceover reel with marginal success. Prior to taking this course, I had very little experience with sound editing or exposure to this form of storytelling. Thanks to my very generous professor, Dr. Ken Cormier, I was able to learn and refine new skills. You can also hear “Quarantine Careers” on the The Benjy Section and Isolated Together podcasts.
2020 Miller Audio Prize Runner-Up in Audio Documentary: “Going Home: Voices of the Condemned” by Pinckney Benedict
This week, we are so excited to feature “Going Home: Voices of the Condemned” by Pinckney Benedict and Anthony Nalker, which was selected by 2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the runner-up this year in the Audio Documentary category.
Pinckney Benedict grew up on his family’s dairy farm in West Virginia. His stories have been published in, among other places, Esquire, the O. Henry Award series, the Pushcart Prize series, the Best New Stories from the South series, and The Oxford Book of the American Short Story. He is a fiction professor in the creative writing program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where he has recently originated a podcasting lab, a virtual reality lab, and a game design lab for student writers.
Anthony Nalker performs widely in Washington, D.C., currently serving as jazz pianist with the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and the National Symphony Orchestra Pops. From 1989-2016 Tony was the pianist of the premiere jazz ensemble of the U.S. Army, the Army Blues, and served as the group’s enlisted leader. Nalker played for the highest levels of the U.S. government and military and performed on USO tours to Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as State Department sponsored musical diplomacy tours to Russia, Kenya, and Ethiopia. Nalker has also composed several works for various settings, including a commission by The National Gallery of Art for a children’s multimedia work about Henri Matisse and a musical adaptation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. He received his undergraduate degree from James Madison University and an M.A. from the University of Iowa.
Listen to “Going Home: Voices of the Condemned” below:
Artist Statement – Pinckney Benedict
I spend a good bit of time reading epitaphs, elegies, NTSB transcripts of aircraft accidents, and the last words of famous, infamous, and non-famous people. When I spoke about this habit with my friend and long-time collaborator, the composer Tony Nalker, he suggested that we should create a musical piece using verbatim the words of people who were facing imminent execution. We’ve attempted to create out of this stark material something both dramatic and factual, without polemic. Tony’s music is fluid and beautiful, and with any luck the piece evokes both sadness and surprise.
Artist Statement – Anthony Nalker
Pinckney and I are long-time collaborators, going back to our teen years growing up in rural West Virginia. This project, made at his suggestion, seemed like an interesting and new way for us to combine our disciplines using cutting edge technology. Utilizing the 19th century American folk song “Going Home” for the underscore of the work, I first recorded a virtual choir as a bed, slowly morphing through different keys, trying to not overshadow the text. I then added a jazz-influenced piano line, adding some audio processing to help create the distant and ethereal nature of the piece. “Going Home” is often sung/played at funerals and is a theme used in Antonin Dvorak’s New World Symphony.
2020 Miller Audio Prize Runner-Up in Prose: “End of the World” by Rachael Cerrotti
Today’s 2020 Miller Audio Prize feature is Rachael Cerrotti’s “End of the World.” Cerrotti’s project was selected by 2020 Miller Audio Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the runner-up for the prize in our Prose category. We are thrilled to be able to share it with you below.
Rachael Cerrotti is an award-winning photographer, writer, educator and producer whose work explores the intergenerational impact of migration and memory. She has been published and featured by NPR, PRI’s The World, WBUR, WGBH, amongst others, as well on podcasts such as Kind World and Israel Story. In the fall of 2019, she released a narrative podcast, titled We Share The Same Sky, about her decade-long journey to retrace her grandmother’s Holocaust survival story. It was listed as one of the best podcasts of the year by HuffPost and as a “Show We Love” by Apple Podcasts; it is now being taught in high school classrooms around the country. Rachael has a forthcoming memoir set to be published in the fall of 2021 and works as a creative producer for USC Shoah Foundation.
Listen to “End of the World” below:
In 2009, I asked my grandmother, Hana, to tell me her story. I knew she was a Holocaust survivor and the only one in her family. I knew she survived because of the kindness of strangers. It wasn’t a secret. She spoke about her history publicly and regularly. But, I wanted to record it as she would tell it from grandmother to granddaughter. So, for a year we did exactly this. She talked and I wrote. After she passed away in 2010, I discovered a most beautiful archive of her life. It was everything she had told me, curated and edited. There were preserved albums and hundreds of photographs dating back to the 1920s. There were letters waiting to be translated, journals, diaries, deportation and immigration papers. There were pieces of creative writings from various stages of her life—some marked up with line edits. There were repeated stories—some written at age fourteen and others at age eighty. There were anecdotes and memories that contradicted each other, bringing in the question of memory to all of her stories.
I digitized and organized it all, plucking it from the past and placing it into my present. Then, in 2014, I began retracing my grandmother’s story across Europe. I tracked down the descendants of those who helped save her life during the war. I went out in pursuit of her memory.
We Share The Same Sky is the story of this journey. Presented by USC Shoah Foundation and co-produced with Erika Lantz, the podcast is an intimate portrait of family history. It is the first narrative podcast to be based on a Holocaust survivor’s testimony (and my first experience producing audio storytelling). This piece, “End of the World,” is the fourth episode in the seven-episode series and tells the story of my visit to Sobibor extermination camp.
2020 Miller Audio Prize Runner-Up in Poetry: “Complete” by Troy Varvel
This week begins our featuring of the runners-up in each category of the 2020 Miller Audio Prize. We’re so excited to feature Troy Varvel‘s “Complete” today, which was selected by 2020 Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the runner-up this year in the poetry category.
Troy Varvel is the author of the forthcoming chapbook Licking the Splinter (Kelsay Books). He earned his MFA from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in Crab Creek Review, Dialogist, Iron Horse Literary Review, River Styx, and Yemassee, among others. Troy lives and teaches in the Texas Hill Country. Find out more at www.troyvarvel.com.
Listen to “Complete” by Troy Varvel below:
A lot of the poetry that I write comes from my experience with a speech impediment—a stutter—that I’ve had ever since I could speak. In this way, poetry is a place for me to examine fluency, disruptions, full-blocks and starting over on the page to see what sounds and rhythms arise from this sort of frustration.
Toward the end of my second year in the MFA program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, I was sitting in the office that I shared with one of my good friends and closest readers, Ian Moeckel (who appears as the second voice in this poem), and he looked up at me and said something along the lines of, “You should try writing your stutters the way that they occur in real life. As line breaks. It’ll force the reader to hear them.”
My mind was blown.
Later that day I sat in the library and drafted out what would become “Complete.” Dialogist was kind enough to publish the poem and the recording in January 2020. As for the recording itself, Pinckney Benedict, a fiction professor at SIU, has championed integrating audio and sound into the MFA program and into our own writing. He has worked hard to provide for writers at SIU the resources needed to produce quality work.
2020 Miller Audio Prize in Humor: “Everything is Alive: Magic 8 Ball” by Ian Chillag
Ian Chillag’s “Magic 8 Ball” was chosen by 2020 Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the winner of this year’s Miller Audio Prize in the humor category. Today, we’re so excited to be able to share Chillag’s hilarious audio project with you below.
Ian Chillag is the host and creator of Everything is Alive. Previously he was a producer for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross, and he co-created and hosted the NPR podcast How To Do Everything. He’s also worked on videos for the New York Times, contributed regularly to the literary magazine A Public Space, and has recorded four episodes of a podcast about a post-apocalyptic public radio pledge drive besieged by pestilence and death that he can’t quite figure out what to do with.
Listen to Chillag’s “Magic 8 Ball” here:
“Magic 8 Ball,” produced in collaboration with Jennifer Mills and performed by Bill Kurtis, originally appeared as a special episode of the podcast Everything is Alive.
2020 Miller Audio Prize in Prose: “The Bird I Held in My Hand: Claudia, 41” by M.D. Reynolds
“The Bird I Held in my Hand: Claudia, 41” by M.D. Reynolds was chosen as this year’s Miller Audio Prize winner in the Prose category by our 2020 Guest Judge, Alex Sujong Laughlin. We’re thrilled to be able to share with you Reynold’s winning project in its entirety below.
M.D. Reynolds is a writer, filmmaker, and the author of a curious little photobook/public art project called Jetsam. He was born in Washington, DC, educated at NYU and Goldsmith’s College, University of London, and has directed a number of short films that have screened around the world. He spends his spare time gobbling vegan baked goods and supporting Arsenal FC. His home is Los Angeles, CA.
Listen to “The Bird I Held in my Hand: Claudia, 41” by M.D. Reynolds here:
We all hang onto little totems of past relationships as a kind of symbolic tether to the relationship itself. Every love letter or photograph or ticket stub secreted away in the back of a drawer rekindles the story of how you came to have it: the day you and X went here, saw this, tasted that, the laughter or tears or raised voices that linger in memory. They’re a connection to the “who” you were in the wisps of a Capital-Y Yesterday. But why do we keep them? What is this “why” that keeps us looking backward? That keeps us holding onto the past?
Claudia, 41, and the other stories that comprise The Bird I Held in My Hand, are explorations of emotionally resonant, kept objects. I’m interested in both how their owners acquired them, but also, and more importantly, why they’ve kept them. The subjects interviewed and the stories they share are of my own invention — they’re scripted and their voices are performed by actors.
To these wider questions, you’ll likely notice I have are no clear answers. Whether we hold onto the past, believing our memories integral to self and identity, or whether this clinging is part of some unexpressed wish to create a “better yesterday,” I couldn’t tell you.
2020 Miller Audio Prize in Audio Documentary: “Climb When Ready” by Arlie Adlington
Arlie Adlington’s “Climb When Ready” was selected by 2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin as the winner of this year’s Miller Audio Prize in Audio Documentary. We’re so excited to feature Adlington’s winning submission in its entirety below.
Arlie Adlington is an audio producer based in London. He has worked on documentaries and podcasts for people like BBC Sounds,VICE, Tate, BBC Radio 3, BBC Radio4, Scottee and The Dig. He says, “I’m especially passionate about making queer radio, working with young people and trying to help the audio industry become more diverse and accessible to everyone. A couple of my favourite projects have been co-producing the podcast series ‘NB’ (which aimed to ‘dismantle the gender binary, one big question at a time’), and making podcasts with 16-20 year olds from Brent as part of the London Borough of Culture programme for 2020.”
Here is Adlington’s winning submission, “Climb When Ready”:
This piece is about climbing and being trans, and how I think those two things go together in a unique and special way. It features my friends Cass Adair and Martha Bennett.
When I made this, I’d been thinking a lot about how stories about trans people – when they’re made by people who aren’t trans themselves – are often very reductive, and sometimes quite objectifying. I think when trans people talk about our lives in our own words, what we have to say is usually much more interesting, and not necessarily what cis people are expecting us to say. So I wanted to make a piece about some stuff that had been on my mind at the time, so there’d be a tiny bit more trans radio in the world.
The piece first aired on the “Sports” episode of Short Cuts, on BBC Radio 4 in November 2019.
2020 Miller Audio Prize Winner in Poetry: “Playing, Just for You” by Marcel “Fable” Price
Marcel “Fable” Price‘s “Playing, Just for You” was selected by this year’s judge, Alex Sujong Laughlin, as the 2020 Miller Audio Prize Winner in the poetry category. “Playing, Just for you” was scored/produced by Jay Jackson of The Last Gasp Collective, recorded by Ryan Payne (Mixed By Replxy), and was Mixed/Mastered by Crossworm.
Fable is a BIPOC North American writer, teaching artist, community advocate, storyteller, and executive director of non profit organization The Diatribe. Fable is the 2016 recipient of a Community Advocate Award, a 2017 40 Under 40 Honoree, and is the currently holding the title of Poet Laureate in Grand Rapids, MI. He is the author of “Adrift in a Sea of M&M’s” (2016) and is currently working to finish his second collection of poems titled New American Monarch: an extroverted caterpillars guide to becoming an introverted butterfly. Among other goals, Fable hopes to launch a youth center focused in preforming arts, writing, and community advocacy in the 49507. As the youngest, first person without a college degree, and only person of color to hold the title of Poet Laureate in Grand Rapids, MI his work has been heavily influenced by contorting personal experiences into a kaleidoscope used to examine glass ceilings for points of fragility.
He lives to be a beacon of vulnerability for those that can relate to his work.
His work has previously been used by PBS, The Flynn Foundation, Mental Health America, and Habitat for Humanity. His poems have appeared in Missouri Review, The Grand Rapids Grass Roots Anthology, The Spoon Knife Anthology, Button Poetry, and Write About Now.
We’re thrilled to be able to share Fable’s “Playing, Just for You” in its entirety below.
This piece was designed to be sonic nostalgia that lives in the now. This collaboration audio poem adds layers of metaphor without language due to the breadcrumbs from the producer (Jay). The author (Fable The Poet) hopes that this message is a reminder to the well-meaning folks that their “advocacy” at times feels like the embrace of supremacy, and that it will serve as a call to action to remember “A brown trial is never a ‘hearing’ to white ears.” Also, understand that every “hot take” on a song like WAP, or Crucifixion of Michael Vick online is indeed a trial.
2020 Miller Guest Judge in the Spotlight: Alex Sujong Laughlin
2020 Miller Audio Prize Guest Judge Alex Sujong Laughlin shares her journey to becoming an audio producer, the lens through which she sees the world, and how TikTok makes her laugh.
The Missouri Review: To start, could you tell us a little about how you came to be an audio producer? Was this something you always thought you wanted to pursue? What drew you to the medium?
Alex Sujong Laughlin: I’ve been in love with radio since I was little — I would sit in my bedroom floor and listen to NPR while I made collages out of garbage. I discovered my first podcast (The Ben Lee Podcast, RIP) when I was in ninth grade, and I listened to its six episodes on repeat on my iPod during gym class that year. Later on, I discovered This American Life (classic gateway), then RadioLab, and that was it for me. I took a little detour in college and post-grad to work in social media, but I always felt like audio was my home base.
TMR: You teach journalism at Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism, you work at Transmitter Media, you helped to create an alarm clock for Google Alexa, you are very active on social media, and the list goes on, yet, you also find time to write. How do you juggle so much at once and still find time for writing? Do you have any tips for those of us who are also trying to carve time out for our writing?
ASJ: It’s extremely hard!!! I don’t want to understate how hard it is!!! My mentor, Marie Myung-Ok Lee, challenged me last year to carve out at least 15 minutes every day to work on my WIP, and once I started doing that, I found I could get so many more words on the page. Still, there are ebbs and flows. I had a massive deadline at work that took up a ton of time and brain space over the last month, so I haven’t made as much time to write as I did in months prior. It’s been important for me to learn to forgive myself for time not spent being “productive.” Sometimes I just need to sleep, and if I don’t do that first, my art will not be good!
TMR: You’ve done a lot of work that explores the concepts of race and identity, including your podcast, “Other: Mixed Race in America.” How do your thoughts on identity factor into your creative pursuits?
ASJ: I’m a mixed race, Korean and white woman who grew up in a middle class military family of divorce with a Korean immigrant mother. That is the only way I have experienced the world, and even though I read and research and interview folks, everything I make is created through that lens. I try to be aware of the blind spots that arise from that, but I also hope to represent the nuances of this particular intersection of identities. I published “Other” three years ago, but I still get emails from people telling me that it was the first time they’d seen themselves represented in media, and that it inspired them to tell their own stories. That is the best response I could have hoped for from that show, and it’s what I aim for with every piece of work I publish.
TMR: Now we’re going to do the thing that all writers do and ask you to tell us about your favorite books. We know you’ve compiled reading lists for your followers in the past; are there essential books/texts that always make your list?
ASJ: Oh my gosh, Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is practically a religious text for me. All of Ruth Ozeki’s work is amazing — I can’t even pick one book. Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing turned my brain inside out last summer. I return to Anaïs Nin’s diaries in between other books — I love reading published diaries and hers are gorgeously written. I also have a deep love for all things Carson McCullers – we went to the same high school in South Georgia, and I always felt a kinship with her. I recently read Reflections in a Golden Eye and was tickled by the extremely accurate descriptions the houses I grew up in on Ft. Benning.
TMR: One of our categories that you will be judging in the Miller Audio Prize is humor, and we love that your social media handles (and website!) are “@alexlaughs.” We’ve got to ask: What makes you laugh, and what makes you laugh in a way that makes you want to hear the bit again?
ASJ: I have a really juvenile sense of humor. I feel like 2008-era Tumblr memes and Spongebob Squarepants are the roots of my humor… which is not cool, but I don’t care. TikTok always gets me laughing to tears. My sister and I discovered this video over Christmas break and it BROKE us for two weeks. Why is it called “pants hair”?!? Why is she standing like that in the picture?! I can’t explain it, and I am sorry.
TMR: A hard reality that all writers and artists have to deal with is rejection and you’re doing this incredible thing by collecting those stories @hellorejection. What is one of the most memorable stories about rejection that you’ve collected? Did it change the way you personally think about rejection?
ASJ: I think just seeing the accumulation of all the stories has been really comforting to me. We all know that everyone experiences rejection, but when you’re in the thick of it, it can really feel like you’re the only talentless reject in the world, and that you should probably give up. It’s comforting to see the feelings I’ve had reflected in so many other people across industries and disciplines. It’s a reminder to keep going!
TMR: And of course, as writers ourselves, we want to know if you have any advice for other artists/writers dealing with their own rejection?
ASJ: Just to remember that it’s part of the process, you’re not the only person going through it — and submit your screenshots to @hellorejection 😉
TMR: We couldn’t sign off without asking some questions about the adorable Pangur Bán that we’ve been seeing a lot of on your Instagram page. Can you tell us about his name? When is he at his most adorable?
ASJ: We usually call him Pong or Pongey, but we named him after a cat in an Old Irish poem written by a monk. My partner is in grad school, and we anticipated that the two of them would spend a lot of their days together in the apartment. Here’s an excerpt of the poem translated by Auden:
Pangur, white Pangur, How happy we are
Alone together, scholar and cat
Each has his own work to do daily;
For you it is hunting, for me study.
Your shining eye watches the wall;
My feeble eye is fixed on a book.
You rejoice, when your claws entrap a mouse;
I rejoice when my mind fathoms a problem.
Pleased with his own art, neither hinders the other;
Thus we live ever without tedium and envy.
Turns out, cats are little terrors, but Pong definitely has his moments when he crawls into bed while I’m reading and snuggles up with me.
Alex Sujong Laughlin is a journalist and writer who works in multiple mediums. By day, she works at a producer at Transmitter Media, and in her spare time she writes fiction and essays about identity and technology. She teaches interactive journalism at the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism and collects rejection letters at @hellorejection.
Enter the 2020 Miller Audio Prize on our Contest page here.