Interview with Renee Angle on WoO — July 21, 2016
Renee Angle is the author of WoO (Letter Machine Editions, 2016). Her writing has appeared in the literary journals Entropy Magazine, Western Humanities Review, The Volta, Diagram, Practice New Art + Writing, Sonora Review, EOAGH in addition to the anthology I'LL DROWN MY BOOK: CONCEPTUAL WRITING BY WOMEN (Les Figues Press, 2012), and in the chapbook Lucy Design in the Papal Flea (dancing girl press, 2010). She lives and works in Tucson, AZ, where she is an archivist for The League for Holographic Music and the Education Programs Coordinator for the University of Arizona Poetry Center. She holds an MFA from George Mason University.
Christopher Nelson: Let’s start by talking about the title of the book. I know it’s an abbreviation of Werke ohne Opuszahl, which you explain is “used to denote musical compositions surviving only as fragments.” Do you think of your book in that German phrase? And what do you call it?
Renee Angle: I always think of it in the English and not in the German, even though the abbreviation only makes sense in the German. I just call it WoO, and I think that’s what musicians would say.
Nelson: But then, of course, you’re also punning: there’s “whew!,” as in fun and excitement, or relief; and there’s “woo,” as in wooing someone.
Angle: Right, a seduction.
Nelson: Because Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon church, is central to WoO, reading it as a seduction—a kind of persuasion—was meaningful for me. But we will talk more about Joseph Smith later.
One of the things I love about WoO is its formal variety, how many different shapes the poems and prose take on the page. There’s prose poetry, rhyming couplets, a question-and-answer motif, and these lovely little “box poems,” where the text is a two-inch square. What were your intentions in presenting your ideas in so many varieties, and how did you know which forms to use for any given part?
Angle: A lot of WoO is collage work, so some of the forms suggested themselves because of the methods I was using to generate them. The rhyming couplets, for example, are found pieces that I collaged together using a rhyme scheme as a constraint. To choose the texts for WoO, I looked at books that scholars think Joseph Smith had in his library or books he read over the course of his life. All of the little box poems were translations that I made using a Hebrew grammar primer Joseph Smith used to learn Hebrew to read The Bible. And some of the poems were generated as my own meditations on certain subjects, and those take a looser, prose-poem form.
I am very interested in formal range, as a device. I’m reminded of seeing a retrospective of Gerhard Richter when I was in graduate school. His work was very meaningful for me, and I was struck by these abstract expressionist paintings that he paired with photorealistic portraits of his daughter and others. So I had that in mind as something that I was aiming for.
Nelson: What juxtaposition can evoke.
Angle: Yeah. Richter’s abstract expressionist pieces are more psychological, and his photorealist pieces are more documentary. In WoO I was trying to embody that kind of mixture for my own purposes.
Nelson: Well, one of the pleasures of WoO, certainly, is its formal range—that we don’t know what to expect each time we turn the page.
I love the cover image, a close-up from Angela Ellsworth’s fascinating Seer Bonnets series, which she describes as “sculptural pioneer bonnets covered in thousands of steel, pearl-tipped corsage pins.” Tell us about this choice and why it is fitting for WoO.
Angle: An inside joke I have with myself is that this is the hat that I wore to make the translation. And, of course, a hat figures prominently in Joseph’s process for writing The Book of Mormon. In an early attempt (perhaps the first 116 pages) he put seer stones in a hat, looked into the hat and reported to be able to see a light and a piece of parchment with symbols on it. This is what he transcribed as The Book of Mormon. For me, the pins and the way they face in is descriptive of the experience of growing up LDS and then admitting to the world you are a non-believer. There’s a beauty and sexiness to the surface of the bonnet, but then there’s this a real violence to it, or potential violence, that really worked in combination. Ellsworth has a great saying: she’s trying to “queer the pioneer,” and I love that idea. I found her work after I’d already written WoO, but I think that we share an affinity, trying to use the pioneer spirit to make something—create some kind of justice.
Nelson: I come from Mormon heritage, and it astonishes me to think about what the pioneer women went through. Most of them walked across a good portion of a continent, in inhospitable weather, to undeveloped areas where they had to make a life, while being in a subjugated position as a polygamist wife. It’s probably impossible for us to imagine just how difficult that was. So the bonnet was, on the one hand, a functional garment to keep the intense sun off of them, but in Ellsworth’s reconstruction of it, yeah, there’s a beauty to it, but we know on the inside of the bonnet are the sharp sides of the pins, so it’s also an object of torture, symbolic of little autonomy and a role that you can’t escape from. You write: “And the women drown like weevils in their open flour”—an amazing image. Do you see WoO as commentary on or critique of the subjugation of women in LDS society?
Angle: Absolutely. At one point I had an artist’s statement that said I was stuffing words in dead men’s mouths. WoO is a feminist act, and I see it as a violent one: writing over someone else’s language. There’s a destruction inherent in that recovery.
Nelson: In my reading, you’ve chosen to—“shun” may be too strong a word—“send to the background” narrative clarity while foregrounding surprise, juxtaposition, and multiplicity of meanings—those effects that result from collaging. Do you see that choice as central to the project? In the preface we are sort of set up for a narrative: “I am the bastard great-great-great grandchild of Joseph Smith.” And he visits your grandmother’s grandmother’s house, and you speculate on what transpired. But when reading WoO we are like bloodhounds on the scent of a story, but it is only distinguishable now and again. And I’m thinking of how The Book of Mormon purports to tells a story, a version of history, but you refuse to do that. Is this part of your violence?
Angle: I think about it more in terms of abstract expressionism; it’s more of a psychological thing. And it is ultimately based in my experience. I grew up in Mesa, Arizona, where there is a big Mormon community. My parents decided to leave the Church when I was about twelve. Thinking back, I can’t believe how hyper aware of religion this group of middle school students were: there were Mormon kids, and Born-Agains who were sort of rebelling against what the Mormons were all about, and then Catholics. And everyone was very aware of everyone’s religion and really defining each other by that. I have this experience of the Mormon kids shaming because I wasn’t going to seminary, and the Born-Agains telling me I was going to Hell. The Catholics just invited me to their quiencieñeras, which was a refreshing alternative. And it was a weird experience of not being able to put a language to any of it—plus I was in middle school, early high school so I didn’t really understand it anyway. So I couldn’t give it a story in part because I felt the limitations of narrative so early on—how we tell stories about each other and what those mean in terms of how other people perceive you and how that forms your own identity. So I wanted to break it open and to allow it to exist in a way so that the reader would have to create the other part. That’s a little backstory.
I’m also interested in how narrative is changing so much in our culture right now. I’ve been looking at the work of Tan Lin, and I’m fascinated with his work in terms of how it is highly narrative to me, yet at the same time he is constantly undermining that impulse. When he visited the Poetry Center I was struck by several comments he made about wanting the reader to be bored. Yet, I found his work—or portions of it—highly entertaining, in the way that anybody enjoys being entertained by a story. He calls it “ambient literature.” So that’s another thing I’ve been thinking about—how narrative structure is being changed: the way we live our lives, the way we read, the way we just consume anything.
Nelson: I think of how different it is to experience the news today compared to just fifteen years ago. Today it’s a pastiche of imagery all related to the same story that comprises our experience of that event. I guess I’m speaking largely about my own experience of the news; I don’t watch TV, so I get it all online from various websites and what people choose to share on social media. It’s like putting together a puzzle; there’s not one, single, clean, definitive narrative, and it quickly becomes a subjective experience. So there isn’t the story; it’s numerous stories and everyone’s is a little different, each echoing some primary event that gets abstracted and doesn’t exist as an absolute.
There’s a question in the book that I found evocative, given the project and what the project alludes to. You write, “If I am present in a subject position what responsibility do I have to the content, to the truth value, of the words themselves?” I imagine that was a question you had to answer before or while writing WoO.
Angle: Yeah, and it’s interesting in light of what you’re talking about with the news because we certainly use that to make decisions about all sorts of things. … Are you asking me how I would answer that question?
Nelson: Well, in this conversation you’ve described the project as being violent, and there’s a lot of fascinating conversation and scholarship around the truth—or facticity—of Joseph Smith’s text. I’m curious to hear if you were concerned at all with being aligned with any sort of truth, and how did you make the decision about what is or isn’t true and, therefore, what should or shouldn’t be part of WoO.
Angle: I think I tried to make the assumption that it was all true and work from there. When I was doing research for the book I read all of the biographies of Smith. Rough Stone Rolling had just come out; it’s the Church-sanctioned biography from 2005. I just tried to accept it all as true and heighten the valences of the syntax when doing my translations. And I did think a lot about the ethics of appropriation, which feels very accepted now, so much so that what I’m doing could be felt not nearly as violent as my intent. But I did spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of my methods. It’s nice to hear you quote passages of the book, in terms of getting a sense of what sticks out to you as interesting or important; however, I don’t think the reader should assume I wrote it. Just as we probably can’t assume that Joseph Smith wrote The Book of Mormon. (This assumption would be dangerous whether you are a believer or a non-believer.) As I mentioned earlier, I did use texts that Smith had access to or were in his library, but I also used texts that are sacred to me, and that’s primarily contemporary poetry. That’s the complicated thing—a phrase I’m starting to hear a lot, even in popular culture, is “Thanks for telling me your truth.” I guess there is some relief in that, that we could acknowledge the ways in which our realities and perspectives are so markedly different from each other; and at the same time, there’s something very disturbing in the lack of unity around certain experiences. If that gets expressed in this book, it’s only as anxiety and not as any kind of solution, or option even.
Nelson: This is maybe going into territory you don’t want to speculate on, but do you think Joseph Smith had a specific orientation to truth?
Angle: There are many theories, like he was just writing a novel then he turned it into this other thing because it was profitable, or that’s what he could create cultural capital with.
Nelson: Portraying him as an opportunist.
Angle: Yeah. There’s a lot of time spent showing him as this sort of shyster and charlatan, but he was also living in a time period and an area where the economy was horrible, infant mortality was high, and there were all kinds of religions just popping up—tent revivals, charismatic expressions, divine healing. Sometimes I feel that Mormonism became true regardless of how it began—right? So he just lived his life in this way that it became true, so it didn’t matter if it started as a lie. There’s something to be said for that; I don’t think that’s an exactly horrible thing.
Nelson: On the first page of the preface you write, “If you can give your body a temperature, can you not give it the word of God?” It’s a really evocative idea. Where does divine inspiration or divine connection come from? Does it just descend upon an individual like rain, or is it something that the individual through intention or receptivity—or whatever—makes possible?
Angle: Or sometimes people just fake it until they make it. There’s this great skit by Maria Bamford—she’s a comedian who has this YouTube show—in which she dresses up like her mom and gives people advice. Someone asked something like, “I’m really jealous of my friends who go to church and seem to find all this peace and friendship and God, but I don’t really believe in God. So do you have any advice for someone like me who doesn’t have that but wants to create that?” And the mom replies, “Just fake it. You just go and fake it.” There’s something to be said for that, but at the same time that can totally suck your soul. That’s what kind of happened to me and my parents; we were faking it for so long, and it didn’t work for us. So, I don’t know. Who knows? Some people can do it.
Nelson: I will continue quoting from your first page: “If you can give your body a temperature, can you not give it the word of God? And that being the case, we must speak in degrees of impostorship.” I’m interested in the possibility of degrees of inspiration and impostorship. Fakery and genuine inspiration don’t exclude each other necessarily—and it’s important that that idea comes so early in the book.
Angle: It’s an idea I think about in terms of poetics too. You can come from a lineage of, say, William Blake, a metaphysical place where you are inspired or you are given the speech from a place outside of yourself, say, poet-as-prophet, or you can come from a documentary kind of place, like Charles Reznikoff. Do we see the poet as prophet or reporter? How is the poet supposed to receive?
Nelson: And I love that there’s such a variety of ways you can orient yourself within the art. So do you feel more like Reznikoff or Blake with this project?
Angle: I don’t think I’m either. I admire them both, and I’m attracted to both of those poles but bringing them together can be tricky.
Nelson: There are quite a few allusions, sometimes fleeting, to Mormon esoterica. I love how they just surface, immediately and without commentary: Quorum of the Twelve, the Golden Tablets, baptizing the dead, bearing one’s testimony, etc. I think most people don’t know anything about those things, unless you grew up in Mormon culture. However, there’s been a recent pop-culture fascination—even fetishizing—with such things, with Mormonism in general: the TV show Big Love, the Mormon musical on Broadway, the film God’s Army, and the list goes on. What do you think about the mainstreaming of something that has been historically esoteric—and deliberately esoteric; Mormons for a long time chose an insular culture.
Angle: One of the things I’m fascinated by is their new public-service campaign I Am Mormon. Maybe you’ve seen some of the commercials. I grew up with Saturday morning cartoons and getting the commercials sponsored by the Mormon Church that had particular morals to convey, you know, where the boy throws the baseball through the window then runs away, and it’s all about telling the truth, all done in opera style. And then to juxtapose that with today’s I Am Mormon where they are really showcasing the variety of their church members. I think that’s pretty smart. I did go see The Book of Mormon on Broadway, and I’ve watched a few seasons of Big Love, and I watched the South Park episode that has become infamous. Mostly it is disturbing to me that Mormonism is held up as this really strange thing, when I feel at this point it’s mainstream. And it’s disturbing to me that there are so many misunderstandings that just perpetuate the stereotypes. The musical is disturbing to me because the missionaries get sent to Uganda, and the only way these white men can grow out of their challenges is to have the black characters act in stereotypical contrast. So all of the racism and violence and misogyny that does truly exist in the Church—the story continues to be told in a way that cannot excavate that in any way that is useful and pushes us in a different direction. We just stay the same. There is also an Errol Morris documentary, Tabloid, that I was really upset about. I thought that it would be good, but he used old footage from a 1970s Mormon cartoon made for Church members to explain the afterlife, and he used that to explain what Mormonism is. Granted, the story he focused on took place in the 70s, but he was telling it in 2010, but the context—
Nelson: It’s a half-century gap.
Angle: Yeah. And I’m not trying to defend Mormon beliefs, but we believe so many crazy things, right? It seems like our imaginations are really sparked things that we can never proved happened. And, how wonderful. And mine too; my whole family story in WoO is unconfirmed.
Nelson: Are you referring to your grandmother’s telling of Joseph Smith staying with her grandmother?
Angle: Yes, and I put a lot on that story in order to make it fit my conceptions.
Nelson: And your imagination goes to the possibilities of what happened during that visit.
Angle: It’s problematic to me. I would like to see something different. I was having dinner with some people a couple of weeks ago—and I didn’t bring it up; they didn’t even know I had written this book—and they were talking about a podcast they’d heard about a Mormon guy who didn’t believe anymore, but he couldn’t leave his family. If he told his family they’d leave him, and he didn’t want to get a divorce. It’s a very familiar story to me. But somebody at the dinner said, “Can Mormons even get divorced?”
Nelson: I can’t count how many times people have assumed that because I’m from Utah I’m a Mormon. My parents did leave the Church. I wasn’t raised Mormon, but they were, and the majority of people in the community where I grew up were Mormon, as are most of my extended family. But a lot of people outside of Utah do think that Mormons still practice polygamy, for example. Even the show Big Love—granted, it’s a comedy, so they are making fun—perpetuates that stereotype.
Angle: And that might have been another reason why I chose to move away from narrative and be so concrete that you couldn’t really see a storyline.
Nelson: There’s an implicit critique in WoO of the tradition from which you come—and in some ways, the tradition from which I come. You write, “Since I was a Mormon, I am one; and since I am one, I won’t be able to not become one.” Having grown up in Utah, I know quite a few ex-Mormons who resent their personal history yet feel guilt for not being Church members even if they no longer believe in it. Can you talk about that lack of autonomy, that being sort of captured by a tradition, and the concomitant guilt?
Angle: Those lines you quoted were very informed by Jean Amery, in his book At the Mind’s Limits: Contemplations by a Survivor on Auschwitz and its Realities. He wasn’t raised Jewish but he had a Jewish grandparent. He was sitting in a coffee shop and opened the newspaper and read the Nuremburg Laws and realized in that moment that he was Jewish and that who they were talking about was him. He was sent to Auschwitz, he was tortured, and survived. But, he didn’t survive survival. He talks a lot about memory and how you can’t be something that you have no memory of. And again that’s about perception—how he was being perceived by others was absolutely determining how he thought of himself, and that created these constraints that were both of his making and were not of his making. I think, for me, it gets into the limits of language too and how we are made by that.
Nelson: How the culture we grow up in determines us whether or not we are a “subscribing member,” so to speak, of that culture.
Angle: Yeah. I think in a religious sphere, we have a lot to do in terms of social justice, in terms of what we might be able offer humanity, and I had that in mind too. I feel that not just the Mormon tradition but all religious traditions have failed us. But it’s not like a political body, like Congress or the President; you can’t impeach anyone or re-elect; it’s much more deep-seated, and it has to do with the way we treat each other and see each other. I think a lot about how religion mostly continues to fail the LGBTQ community and women. It’s failed to offer solutions in a 2016 world for the way that our families now exist and function.
Nelson: And one could argue that it is bound to continue in that failure. Like you mentioned by contrast, in Congress or a political body the texts are amendable: you can write new laws, you can update and modify; in a healthy democracy the governing structure is in flux. But in a religious structure, law is more concretized, so as a society moves forward through time, the religious doctrines don’t really evolve, and that seems to run counter to the aims of social progress and social justice.
Angle: I feel like I hear a lot of politicians, especially on the right, saying, “Well, that’s what religion is for and what the church is for and non-profits are for.” But when our broken political system seems to be the only way to afford people the right to marry whomever they want—that gets kind of scary to me.
Nelson: It’s certainly not unique to Utah nor is it unique to Mormonism, but being young and queer and Mormon is a horrible situation. The number of teen suicides in the LGBTQ community in Utah is horrifying. We’ve probably both seen the effects of that firsthand. We should probably acknowledge, though, that there are benefits to the cohesion of a tightly knit Mormon community. I think that most of the small Mormon communities are healthy, trusting places.
Angle: Yeah. I didn’t grow up in Utah, but I think I certainly experienced that in Mesa. When I grew up there, it was the only town with a temple in the region outside of Utah; the LA temple hadn’t been built. But I experienced that too; they really valued the arts and creating open, public spaces. And those were all things that I benefited from. And even something like the pioneer spirit or ideas of moderation—these are things that I’ve found use for in my life.
Nelson: I feel like my questions have been more about the context of the project than the text itself. It could be my own bias.
Angle: I appreciate your awareness of the nuances of it because I feel that WoO could be read like a condemnation of the Mormon Church.
Nelson: In researching for WoO, I don’t know if you came across the the comparisons between The Book of Mormon and The Late War, G.J. Hunt’s account of the War of 1812. It was a history of that war used in grammar schools, but he wrote it in a scriptural style with scriptural tones. Well, the parallels are remarkable, and there are numerous sections that are nearly identical.
Angle: It makes so much sense with what I know about the kinds of texts they were creating to teach children during that time—heavy rhyme, emphasis on manners and morality. I think I ended up focusing more on Smith’s processes—or purported processes—and his relationship with language than I did on the different versions of the text or where the text came from. An image that has always stuck with me is how he pied the type of a printing press and buried another because the journalists who used these presses had reported unfavorable things about him. And yet, he was studying Hebrew and kept journals and wrote quite a bit. So there was this tension in his relationship with language that in my retelling becomes a more focal, active, and necessary component than the particular versions and books he lifted from.
Nelson: If you associate truth and authority with a certain writing style and tone, how smart and how obvious to replicate that style if you wanted to come across as being prophetic or a bearer of some kind of truth. Well, I bring it up to ask if you are interested in the enterprise of authentication or debunking?
Angle: I spent a lot of time thinking about forgery and fakery in general—in the visual and written arts. How do we authenticate a painting? There’s DNA testing and all kinds of high-tech stuff you can do now. The same with Joseph Smith; we’ve done a lot of DNA testing on him and his ancestors, so we can figure things out that way. But before all that, there’s the “aura” of the work—to borrow a word from Benjamin—that seems so important to this idea of authenticity. I was interested in thinking about the aura of a fake and how a fake might have an aura that is beautiful, useful, or important in some way. In the intro I talk about Mark Hofmann in particular.
Nelson: It’s such a fascinating story.
Angle: Yeah. And his attempt to recreate—he wasn’t just trying to copy something, he was trying to alter Church history, and he used forgery techniques to do it, which seems like a useful way to go about it, if you want to come from this violent feminist perspective that I’m taking about—to destroy from within. But Hofmann’s father was a polygamist, and he was sort of nominal, on the fringes, and I wonder what that really means. Did he believe some esoteric teachings that had already been abandoned, like blood atonement? But I think that he wanted to bring about a more conservative, historical perspective. And, ultimately, his “fake” contained some “truths” that Church officials were afraid of. And the Church gets criticized a lot for revising history or hiding it and then coming out, like just a few years ago, they finally admitted Joseph Smith had forty-plus wives.
But to go back to an earlier idea: maybe having a revisionist history could be a useful tool, if we could revise in ways that allow us to keep our belief. I mean, a kind of Mormon that I’ve met is one who still believes but doesn’t believe in Joseph’s story anymore. That person is still in it for the other reasons and has been able to somehow make that distinction for themselves; that’s very interesting for me.
Nelson: I think that’s valid in any faith. There’s probably appalling history in any religion, but I don’t think that invalidates the power of believing in their ethics, principles, promises, etc.
Angle: Yes, although, I think the Mormon Church’s paradigm is particularly resistant to this kind of, oh I don’t know, secular practice/belief. But, there is a way in which heresy becomes a kind of belief; sometimes it just feels like you’re chasing your tail. But to go back to this idea of the fake: I’ve been reading Benjamin’s The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in which he argues for the aura of the original and what happens when you make a mechanical reproduction of it; the aura is lost. He said that eventually that leads to fascism. I think there’s a way in which authenticity is important and there’s another way in which the fakes have become real, and we can’t exist without them.
Nelson: Right. We can search online for, say, Michelangelo’s David and get thousands of replications of the original, but those facsimiles are all most people will ever experience of David.
Angle: Right. Another fascinating aspect of that is what value we place on art works. It’s arbitrary; it’s like the stock market; it’s just what people are believing that the value is right now. It’s just a system for accounting for our desires. I mean the gold’s not there anymore, so it’s fascinating how we would put faith in these things and stake our livelihoods on them, when they’re not there. Even our coins—it’s just copper on the outside.