Joanna Gunderson (1932-) has been writing since 1957 and publishing, “books thought to be unpublishable because of length, form or content,” since founding Red Dust in 1961. Gunderson is both a novelist and playwright. Her works include Indrani and I, Sights Three Novellas, Kaleidoscope 1969, The Field, Lullaby, and Night. Her plays have been performed widely throughout New York.
The following is taken from a talk about Red Dust that Joanna Gunderson gave at the Colony Club in 1987:
Red Dust was started 1961 with the purpose of publishing work thought to be unpublishable because of length, form or content.
In 1963 the first books came out: MATHIS AT COLMAR: A Visual Confrontation by Linda Nochlin and SIGHTS Three Novellas by Anna Holmes. In one of the novellas: Paris, July 14, 1959 the events of a woman’s life are not presented as they occurred in time but in the lights of that night.
I visited Paris in 1959 but came home quite ignorant of the “nouveau roman”. A friend gave me a copy of THE WIND by Claude Simon translated by Richard Howard. I saw that Simon had given a visual arrangement to his work. The story of the hero is not told in time but like the wind is throughout the book.
“All the elements of the story are always present” Simon has written.
In 1969 I first took the Red Dust books to the Frankfurt Book Fair. The books that interested me the most were on the publisher John Calder’s table. I saw THE THIRD WEDDING by Costas Taktsis (this was actually an Alan Ross book). In this novel a mother and daughter-in-law gossip and the history of Greece 1939-49 emerges.
Taktsis has let individual lives speak deliberately for themselves
and unwittingly for their period with unforced authority. The Observer
I also saw THE PARK by Philippe Sollers and A SENTIMENTAL TALK by Daniel Castelain. I published these two along with LAW AND ORDER by Claude Oilier – a book that Grove Press bought and decided not to publish. In these three novels he, you and I may be one and the same person, events of one time cannot be separated from events of another or seen from one point of view, the climax is all through the story.
Several years later at the Fair, again on Calder’s table, I saw THE LIBERA ME DOMINE and PASSACAGLIA by Robert Pinget translated by Barbara Wright. Red Dust has been publishing Pinget’s works ever since. These are works of voices often with conflicting accounts of an event.
It is not what can be said or meant that interests me but the way
in which it is said. And once I have chosen this way it imposes both
composition and subject matter on me.
Red Dust has published eight Pinget works with two more about to come out. EVENT by Philippe Sollers has followed THE PARK. In this work the real event is the narration itself. Barthes has written about the novel in the afterword. He says in effect: No truth can be written about an event, it is only when we give up words in their function of naming things and allow them their own life that “a language of truth begins to speak.”
Although I feel that I know most about fiction Red Dust has published quite a lot of poetry. FOUR GERMAN POETS : Eich, Domin, Fried, Kunert translated by Agnes Stein came through the mail. I went on to publish 100 POEMS WITHOUT A COUNTRY by Fried and WINDY TIMES by Kunert. These German poets are characterized by a restlessness, an inability to forget, a sense of being a citizen between two camps.
My favorite of the German poets is Gunter Eich and my favorite poem: Oder my River
Oder my river,/ which has no source/ Drops trickle out of the mountains of time/ water tasting of childhood
Eich goes on:
Unrest in field furrows and elderbush/ the incomprehensible in the heart.
Three years ago Red Dust published Antonio Cisneros, the great Peruvian poet: AT NIGHT THE CATS translated by David Tipton, Maureen Ahern and Will Rowe
Here is one of my favorites:
Wind Haut de Cagnes
The wind fucks me up
Even if it’s literary like the Mistral that
names hotels and wines
tangling my hair
from the water it brings sand, shipwrecked sailors, planks from wrecks
from the forests thorns, tall branches and pikes and owls
(from the streets of Lima:
and a little ground glass)
Paul Klee painted a painting called Le Tapis de la Memoire ö it is something which is there before you and yet it is woven with the past. Klee wanted you to take time to see a painting.
I want you to see the story all at once.
That is the sort of thing I am looking for and working with at Red Dust.
Joanna Gunderson, 1987
Books by Joanna Gunderson
Margaret Your Face Came Back To Me Then—Joanna Gunderson/ Paperback/ 59 Pages/ $10.00/ ISBN 978-0-87376-106-2
Margaret is like a verbal painting. It’s like walking through a gallery of paintings and being transported in one world after another. Frugal words create or recreate intense situations that conjure up visualizations and feelings. Author and reader walk hand in hand.
Leaves catching the light
Leaves of olive trees have two colors they shimmer in the sunlight
Joanna Gunderson’s Margaret is a work that gives the readers insight into the multiple dynamics involved in every act of writing and reading. Through Gunderson’s unique, non-linear style, structures in and of language are being built, and the reader’s journey through them is both marvelous and orchestral.
She or the unknown person—Joanna Gunderson/ Paperback/ 159 pages/ 20.00/ISBN-978-0-87376-102-4
I was in Paris in 1959 and went to the first Bastille Day of the Fifth Republic with my friend Yuen Yuey Chinn. I had been thinking of my mother and I thought of putting down what I knew of her life in the pattern of the lights of that night rather than time. This came out in Sights, Three Novellas “Paris July 14, 1959”
Later that same year Chinn brought me to visit Mme. Sema Weil, mother of Simone. We read from Simone Weil’s Cahiers I and II. We sat in her room where she worked. I was deeply impressed with her words and thought about “ce qu’on appelle je, moi, c’est seulement une mobile” – “what we call I, me is only a moving thing”…
from the foreword of She or the unknown person
4 Singer My mother’s sewing machine
2N I took it to the cleaners
can’t sew on a button
can’t thread a needle
4 Singer the repair man came
But Madame, you forgot to thread the needle
I laughed and laughed
3 La P could not help laughing when he fell in the
they were pressed his pants, one pair of shoes
tight and shinny
by the time we got to France
the burned chicken that night in the Pyrenees
no one knows how delicious
jumping from rock to rock
to cross the river
from She or the unknown person
Kaleidoscope 1969—Joanna Gunderson/ Paperback/ 74 pages/ $12.00/ISBN—978-087376-095-9
Kaleidoscope 1969 is about people in a time of revolution. It is non linear, inspired by a photograph of a large family seen at the Museum of Modern Art “taken from no particular place at no particular time.” Fragments from 60’s underground cinema as well as scenes from the Russian Revolution run through it.
Joanna Gunderson’s texts are primal pathways to the unconscious, chains of associations. They are patchworks of her own experiences, interwoven with the fragmented echoes of others’ chance remarks.
I’m going to make the film from no particular place at no particular time.
Did you go to the Surrealism Series?
In one of the films the camera moved back and forth over a table, a stone, a bowl. There was a beautiful brownish color over the whole.
I want to do something like this: a dialogue between a man, a woman and the walls of a room.
In another a coffin was pulled through the street by a camel. The gait of the camel was beautiful.
the open coffin, the trees without branches, the clock without hands
from Kaleidoscope 1969
The Field—Joanna Gunderson/ Paperback/ 103 pages/ $10.95/ISBN—978-087376-083-2
The Field offers a literary journey that is rigorous and labyrinthine. It goes all the way towards creating a new kind of emotional logic.
Night Four Plays (Bells, Hieroglyphics of the Night, Fire, Night 1, 2, 3, 4 and Night the combined voices)—Joanna Gunderson/ Paperback/ $12.95/ ISBN—978-0-87376-093-5
The four plays in this collection were written and performed 1994-1997.
Gunderson’s radical approach is to turn the usual relation between subject and object inside out. Using a collage of fragments taken from her memory, she hypnotizes us into a very personal, very musical world until we become an intimate part of it. The result is an experience that can’t be described in rational terms.
Gunderson’s plays take language to a breaking point, and then reassemble it in ways that are both interpretive and generative. Her work, as innovative and challenging for its time as that of Stein and Beckett was for theirs, is haunting and important.
The words, voices, images and sounds of Joanna Gunderson’s experimental plays ripple over the mind and body like a fugue. In her recently published collection of four experimental plays, Night, the reader experiences Gunderson’s continuity of subject and object. Words and voices from writers like DeQuincey and Beckett, or images from a painter like Turner, or an interview with poet Audre Lord, or sketches of conversations, or personal memories, or the sounds of bells or of nature-all of these merge and float across the page (or, in performance, the stage).
Throughout Gunderson’s texts, the words of the play are in bold, and the words in smaller typeface give source and context. So reading her plays is different than experiencing them in a theater–manque in that the kinetic, sculptural, and aural aspects are missing, but perhaps enriched in other ways. Reading becomes a theater of the mind.
Patricia Laurence-Review of Contemporary Fiction