Navigating distance in locality
An interview with Tom Patterson, featuring photographs by Jonathan Williams
Note: I initially reached out to Tom Patterson in June 2019 with a research inquiry related to poets practicing in the American South during the late 1970s and ’80s. Although he’s now known primarily as a writer on contemporary art and an independent curator, Tom has served in multiple roles with small poetry presses over the years, perhaps most notably as the executive director of the Jargon Society from 1984–87, where he led Jargon’s Southern Visionary Folk Art Preservation Project. Prior to that, he ran the Atlanta-based Pynyon Press for five years, publishing work by Joyce Benson, Jerome Rothenberg, and Jonathan Williams, just to name a small few. I asked Tom if he would be interested in having a formal interview regarding his work with Pynyon and Jargon, his affiliations with Black Mountain College, and his work as a promoter of vernacular visionary environments.
— Andy Martrich
Andy Martrich: Your writing and publishing practices are very much rooted in the South, particularly in and around Georgia and North Carolina — for example, your work with the North Carolina–based Jargon Society and its founder Jonathan Williams. Could you tell me how you met Williams and got involved with Jargon?
Tom Patterson: In the early 1970s, I was an aspiring writer and undergraduate student at St. Andrews College (now University), a small, private liberal arts college in Laurinburg, North Carolina. I enrolled as a sophomore transfer because I’d heard good things about its creative writing program, directed by poet Ronald H. Bayes. During my senior year, St. Andrews hosted a Black Mountain College Festival to celebrate the creative legacy of BMC, which had closed more than fifteen years earlier. Martin Duberman’s historical study Black Mountain: An Exploration in Community had recently been published, so the school’s legacy was only just starting to be belatedly celebrated. St. Andrews hosted visits by several Black Mountain scholars (Duberman, Leslie Fiedler) and individuals who had studied or taught there (Buckminster Fuller, Robert Creeley, Ed Dorn, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jonathan Williams).
Duberman’s book and my meetings with these individuals had a profound impact on me and would prove to have major implications for my future career. I was particularly impressed with Jonathan Williams — one of the few native North Carolinians to have attended Black Mountain as a student — specifically his work as a poet and his publishing ventures as manifested in his Jargon Press, which he founded in 1951 (the year before my birth). During the three or four days he spent at St. Andrews, he gave readings of his work and showed color slides of poets and artists he knew, gravesites he’d visited, and vernacular visionary environments such as the Watts Towers (Los Angeles) and le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval (Hauterives, France). He also passed around copies of his own books and books he published under the Jargon imprint. By that time and since 1965, the Jargon Press had been incorporated as a nonprofit, charitable organization known as the Jargon Society. At the time I had never heard of most of the poets, writers, and photographers he published, but I thought the books were beautiful objects and was intrigued by their contents.
Le Palais Idéal du Facteur Cheval (Hauterives, France). Photo by Jonathan Williams.
Jonathan was also the first person I’d met who shared my interest in vernacular visionary environments — a phenomenon for which I had no language at the time, but which I knew about from my observations on the roadsides in places I’d visited or passed through on family vacations during my childhood. This was the basis of my first conversations with him. I was also impressed with him as a personality — a “character” as we describe such people in the South. He was tall, had a deep resonant voice, a great sense of humor, and he dressed like an English country gentleman. He was almost exactly the same age as my parents, but far more interesting than any of their peers, and I was strongly drawn to him. Jonathan Williams was a man who had devoted his life to culture, and I quickly began to consider him a role model — a man who lived and worked in a manner I could see myself following in the future. His visit to St. Andrews was the first of several times I would see and converse with him in the mid-to-late 1970s.
Martrich: So out of this relationship you started to work as a writer on Jargon projects, particularly ones related to vernacular visionary environments?
Howard Finster circa 1984. Photo by Jonathan Williams.
Patterson: My direct involvement with the Jargon Society didn’t come about until several years later, in the early 1980s, after Jonathan introduced me to the visionary artist St. EOM (a.k.a. Eddie Owens Martin). In the meantime, I went through a few transitional years and, by 1978, settled in Atlanta, where I got a job writing for a Southern travel and culture magazine, Brown’s Guide to Georgia. I reconnected with Jonathan when I contacted him about profiling him for the magazine. It was in that context that I first visited St. EOM, whom I got to know over the next several years. Then, in 1983, I proposed a book about St. EOM to Jonathan, which he accepted. I suppose it could be said that I took the lead on that project, although I undertook it on the request of St. EOM himself, who asked me to work with him on a book about his life. My book about Howard Finster (Stranger from Another Word: Man of Visions Now on this Earth), which I began researching a few months after starting work on the St. EOM book, was initially planned as a Jargon book, with my research largely funded through the Jargon Society. But, for various reasons — including Finster’s skyrocketing popularity after 1985 — it was eventually published by the New York art book publisher Abbeville Press (1989).
Martrich: Was it difficult to gain the trust of St. EOM, Finster, and other writers and artists who were practicing in isolated rural areas of the South? Was there anyone that you wanted to engage with but couldn’t?
St. EOM at Pasaquan. Photo by Jonathan Williams.
Patterson: I didn’t have to spend much, if any, time gaining the trust of writers or artists, with the notable exception of St. EOM. His years of street-hustling and other outlaw activities had taught him to maintain a perpetual wariness of strangers. In getting to know him, I quickly learned that it was not easy to gain his trust. My first lesson in this regard came when I visited him in the summer of 1980 as an unofficial emissary of the National Endowment for the Arts. At the behest of Jonathan Williams, NEA officials had chosen to award St. EOM a grant of $5,000 for his ongoing work on Pasaquan. I was dispatched to notify EOM of the impending award and arrange for him to fill out the necessary forms. Unable to reach him by phone after several attempts, I drove from Atlanta to Pasaquan one weekend to discuss the matter with him. Finding him at home and otherwise unoccupied, I told him about the grant offer and was startled when he let me know, in no uncertain terms, that he wanted no part of it. Any other artist I knew would have been happy to accept an unsolicited award of $5,000. St. EOM, however, suspected a sinister, hidden motive. I didn’t know at the time that he’d been a lifelong income-tax scofflaw. He’d never had a social security number and never paid taxes, so he immediately figured the grant offer was a ruse designed to enable a government investigation. All the NEA needed from him in order to release the grant funds was his signature on an application form. That was the goal of my visit — only the second time I had been to see him — but I returned to Atlanta without the signature. I left him with the application form and contact information for Jim Melchert, the NEA staffer in charge of the grant program. There ensued several phone calls among the three of us and a follow-up visit I made to Pasaquan a few weeks later. The upshot was that EOM finally signed the application form and received a check from the NEA. Instead of using the funds as they had been intended, he later told me that he had deposited them into a savings account, and that if the government ever questioned him about them, he intended to return the money to the NEA.
These negotiations enabled me to get better acquainted with St. EOM. During my visits with him, I always brought him small offerings of cannabis, some of which we smoked together. This clearly pleased him and rendered him more favorably disposed toward me, as a result of which he consented to let me interview him for a magazine article. When the article appeared in 1981, he was evidently pleased with the way I had presented him and let him tell his own story — some of it, at least. So, in this way, we established the beginnings of a friendship and a partnership of sorts. I began visiting him more often, and he seemed to look forward to these visits. Eventually, in 1983, this led to the beginnings of our collaboration on his oral autobiography.
The pot I customarily brought with me to Pasaquan was apparently of much higher quality than what he’d typically been able to score in Marion County and [the] vicinity, so he often requested that I bring him larger quantities, up to an ounce at a time. He always reimbursed me, and — as I explained to him — I never requested more than what I had paid my Atlanta sources to acquire it. On at least one occasion he overpaid me by fifty dollars. I promptly pointed out the mistake and handed back the fifty dollars. In retrospect, I don’t think this was accidental. I suspect it was a test of my honesty, and I clearly passed it.
Martrich: Your relationship with St. EOM and work on the St. EOM and Finster books led to you eventually coming onboard as Executive Director of the Jargon Society?
Tom Patterson (left), Roger Manley (center, wearing Richard Nixon mask), Guy Mendes (right) at the release party for St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan, Captain’s Bookshelf, Asheville, North Carolina, 1987. Photo by Jonathan Williams.
Patterson: My two books, St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan and Howard Finster, Stranger from Another World, along with Jonathan’s (with Roger Manley and Guy Mendes) Walks to the Paradise Garden (which waited many years to be published, finally seeing the light of day in 2019 under Phillip March Jones’s Institute 193), were the most enduring results [of] Jargon’s Southern Visionary Folk Art Preservation Project. Jonathan and I devised this project in 1983, and it became my primary focus after being named executive director in 1984, when I moved from Atlanta to Winston-Salem to set up Jargon’s new business office. The project and my tenure as a Jargon employee unfolded over a three-year period ending in 1987, soon after Jargon published St. EOM in the Land of Pasaquan on Halloween of that year.
Also connected to the project was an illustrated, twelve-panel foldout pamphlet titled Southern Visionary Folk Artists, which Jargon published (without the customary Jargon number) in January 1985 to accompany the exhibition of the same title, which I co-curated with North Carolina photographer/folklorist Roger Manley. It was designed to focus public attention on the Southern Visionary Folk Art Project and was the first foray into independent curating for both Manley and myself. It opened in January of 1985 to coincide with that year’s annual Jargon Society board of directors meeting in Winston-Salem. The featured speaker for the exhibition’s opening program was Robert Bishop, who was then the director of the Folk Art Museum of America in New York (now the American Folk Art Museum).
Martrich: Did you encounter any hostility from traditional folklorists regarding the promotion of visionary artists as folk artists? For example, I had heard that the folk art scholar John Michael Vlach had made some comments to this effect …
Patterson: Just to clarify, I should note that the traditional folklorist’s notion of folk art — at least in the early 1980s — pertained exclusively to utilitarian objects made by hand in keeping with styles and traditions passed on from one generation to the next within a family or community context. I don’t know that there were many traditional folklorists who paid attention to what Jargon was doing. Vlach (a deservedly respected scholar on many counts) happened to be on a mailing list Jonathan Williams used to disseminate information about the Southern Visionary Folk Art Preservation Project, which focused on largely self-taught creators of idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind objects and hand-built environments. Vlach was probably the most vocal opponent of using the term “folk” to describe such work. Responding by mail to Jonathan’s announcement of Jargon’s efforts along these lines, Vlach reportedly said he wanted to “let the air out of your tires.” In another context, Vlach called Howard Finster a “whacko.” I never met or spoke to Vlach about any of this, and I don’t know that he had any awareness of or opinion about Jargon’s publication of literary material, photography, or other kinds of visual art, and I don’t know of any other traditional folklorists who were particularly aware of these efforts.
I eventually came to feel that the prevailing terminology used to discuss the work of artists like Finster and St. EOM — terms like folk art, outsider art, and self-taught art — was inadequate. Jean Dubuffet’s term l’art brut is perhaps more apt, and the word “visionary” is certainly applicable to the work of many of these artists.
Martrich: Were there other Jargon books or projects where you took the lead during your time as executive director?
Patterson: One of the more interesting artist/characters I was involved with was the singer/performer Bruce Hampton (a.k.a. Colonel Bruce Hampton, a.k.a. Hampton B. Coles, Ret.). I had been an ardent fan of his work since 1970, when he fronted a band called the Hampton Grease Band. When I introduced Jonathan to him and his work, Hampton was leading a band called the Late Bronze Age. I brought Jonathan and his partner, Thomas Meyer, to several of their shows in Hampton’s native Atlanta during the early 1980s. At my instigation, Jonathan launched plans to publish a small book of Hampton’s unconventional lyrics under the Jargon imprint, which he proposed to illustrate with drawings by James Harold Jennings, a North Carolina artist who made his exhibition debut in the aforementioned Southern Visionary Folk Artists exhibition. Like several other Jargon projects that Jonathan proposed and announced to individuals and organizations on Jargon’s mailing list, this publication never appeared.
Tom Patterson at James Harold Jenning’s open-air “Art World” installation near Pinnacle, North Carolina, 1987. Photo by Jonathan Williams.
Martrich: Was that due to a lack of funding?
Patterson: Not necessarily. Jargon was probably a bit overcommitted at the time, and my recollection is that Jonathan simply tabled the project and didn’t ever get around to returning to it. Without a doubt, though, raising the funds to produce the books was the biggest challenge at Jargon. “Rattling the old Jargon begging bowl,” as Jonathan used to say. His fundraising letters to subscribers, patrons, and potential patrons are works of art in themselves.
Martrich: Did you encounter work that you considered as a sort of textual equivalent to the folk art or visionary environments you were working in, e.g., St. EOM’s Pasaquan and Finster’s Paradise Garden?
Patterson: Perhaps, to the extent that many so-called folk artists are essentially self-taught or have learned to make art without recourse to academic training or apprenticeships. The same can certainly be said of many poets, or individuals who write poetry. In my observation, many and maybe most people who write poetry seem to have little awareness of poetic traditions and the noteworthy poets who have preceded them. They might know the names of a few poets but lack any significant knowledge of their work or poetic theories. Although the poetry written by such unexposed or underexposed individuals is often negligible, this is not always the case.
Bruce Hampton’s lyrics might be an example of “outsider” writing. The Late Bronze Age’s first LP is titled “Outside Looking Out.” I published several of his lyrics under the Pynyon Press imprint in the third and final volume of the Red Hand Book anthology series, which also features an interview with Allen Ginsberg on the subject of music.
Martrich: You worked with Pynyon Press prior to Jargon. Can you talk a bit about how Pynyon Press came to fruition?
Patterson: Pynyon Press and Foundry was a nonprofit corporation originally established in Atlanta by Mark Smith and Bob Tauber around 1976. The two of them had been studio art professors at my alma mater, St. Andrews. Mark was primarily a sculptor, and Bob’s specialty was printmaking and old-fashioned letterpress printing. When a new administration at St. Andrews declined to renew their contracts, they decided to join forces and set up their own art-focused business in Atlanta. Their arrival there fortuitously coincided with a local artistic renaissance of sorts — a happy consequence of a new mayoral administration (Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor), a new US presidential administration (that of Georgia native Jimmy Carter), and a resultant infusion of new funding possibilities for artists and arts organizations. Several Atlanta-based arts groups joined forces to take advantage of the Forrest Avenue School — a vacant, multistory building near downtown Atlanta. They formed what was originally known as the Forrest Avenue Consortium, and Mark and Bob joined forces with them, literally getting in on the ground floor. Mark offered courses in sculpture and metal-casting, and Bob offered courses in printmaking, papermaking, and letterpress printing.
Ronald H. Bayes circa 1978 Photo by Jonathan Williams.
I was aware of their activities when I moved to Atlanta in 1977 and was consciously hoping there might be a role for me to play in their new enterprise. Despite the fact that they were both literary enthusiasts, I figured I could bring some special skills to Pynyon as a writer and editor. Bob was just beginning work on the typographic design for a new book of poetry by my former creative writing teacher at St. Andrews, Ronald H. Bayes. It would be the fourth and final volume in a series called the Umapine Tetralogy (named for the small town where he had grown up in Oregon), in something of the same vein as Pound’s Cantos and Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems. Bob seemed delighted for me to step in as the book’s copy editor, so that was for all practical purposes my first “job” with Pynyon — a labor of love, for sure.
Martrich: Pynyon seems to have gone in a different direction once you moved into a leadership role. Can you talk a bit about your approach to running the press?
Patterson: As Bob Tauber originally conceived it, Pynyon Press was to produce very small-edition, handmade books on his old-fashioned press, but he was already beginning to rethink the concept when I became involved. Ron Bayes’s Fram was a larger book than he felt he could produce on his letterpress, so he farmed the printing out to a commercial operation in Atlanta (Curtiss Printing Company), which operated a large printing press that still employed the old-fashioned “hot” lead type. That project was already underway when I came in, but I designed the book’s cover.
By the time Fram came out, I was already at work on a project that turned into the first volume of Pynyon’s Red Hand Book series, based on a very loose idea I had in mind when I moved to Atlanta. I wanted to produce a publication that would bring together a variety of poems and other writings by my contemporaries, whom I felt had some literary promise, alongside writing by more widely known figures with whom I had come in contact during and after my college years. I also wanted to include drawings, photographs, and other visual material by unknown and more widely known artists to make it a more visually interesting publication. I didn’t want to call it a magazine, because that would imply a commitment for publishing on some kind of regular schedule, but I did have in mind that it might be the first in a series.
The Red Hand Book series was also a departure from Bob’s original concept for Pynyon Press. It was printed offset, and I handled most aspects of the design. There was no conflict, though, because I took charge of raising funds for the project, and it didn’t require any special efforts from Bob or Mark. They continued to pursue their own work at the press and foundry as they had originally planned. Essentially, they just broadened their umbrella to cover my efforts. Bob produced a few other small-edition books on his letterpress (chapbooks by Atlanta poets Norman Finkelstein and Nat Anderson) and conducted classes in papermaking. Mark finished building his sculptors’ foundry and began casting sculptures there.
Eventually, Bob and Mark were unable to maintain their operation’s financial stability, and in late 1979 they were forced to abandon it. At that point, they essentially turned the operation over to me. I became Pynyon’s executive director, and I put together a bare-bones board of directors consisting of visual artists Cornel Rubino and Linda Ridings-Rubino and my soon-to-be wife, poet Ellen Thompson a.k.a. Ford Betty Ford. Between late 1979 (when Red Hand Book I was published) and late 1983, we issued two more volumes of RHB and two books by individual poets — The Selectric Poems of Terrill Shepard Soules and Jonathan Williams’s The Fifty-two Clerihews of Clara Hughes (featuring two drawings by Glen Baxter).
Martrich: The second volume in the Red Hand Book series was dedicated to the memory of Charles Olson and featured a number of writers affiliated with Black Mountain. Where did you get the idea to pursue that project?
Patterson: After Black Mountain College closed in the late 1950s, the former campus was purchased by the director of a boys’ summer camp (Camp Rockmont). Coincidentally, I spent two five-week summer sessions at the camp in 1963 and 1964, at which time I was completely unaware of BMC. I first heard about it when studying with Ronald H. Bayes in 1972, and it was only then that I realized I had attended summer camp on the former BMC campus. It was in Bayes’s modern poetry class that I was introduced to Charles Olson’s work, primarily through Donald Allen’s The New American Poetry.
Cover of Red Hand Book II (Pynon Press, 1980).
A few years after my initial meetings with BMC-affiliated individuals (e.g., Jonathan Williams), in 1974, I met and befriended another former Olson student, Joel Oppenheimer, who made repeated visits to St. Andrews in the late 1970s and early ’80s, following my 1974 graduation. I found Olson’s poetry intimidating and difficult when I first encountered it in the early 1970s, but I was also intrigued by it, and I kept coming back to it, in part because I knew he’d had such a profound influence on his former students, whose work I admired. By the late 1970s, I became more acclimated to it, in part through my reading of his essays and lectures (mostly those in the volume Human Universe). I started systematically reading The Maximus Poems in tandem with George Butterick’s immensely useful Guide to the Maximus Poems. By that time, I had become involved with Pynyon Press and published the first volume of Red Hand Book. When I started thinking about a second volume, it occurred to me that we were coming up on Olson’s seventieth birth anniversary and the tenth anniversary of his death (1980). This coincidence of anniversaries gave me the idea to dedicate Red Hand Book II to Olson. I was already in contact with several of Olson’s former students, so I set about broadening that network of connections through an announcement about plans for the volume, which I sent out to a mailing list I compiled with the assistance of Jonathan Williams, Joel Oppenheimer, and Ron Bayes. A friend and St. Andrews alumna had given me a snapshot she made during a Florida vacation showing the facade of a small building with a sign that read “CHARLES OLSON REAL ESTATE” — obviously named for another Charles Olson. I used the latter image in the mailer I sent out soliciting entries for our forthcoming tribute, which drew a number of enthusiastic responses and contributions.
Martrich: Did you have editorial and publishing experience in poetry prior to your work with Pynyon?
Patterson: In my senior year at St. Andrews (1973–74), I served as editor of the student literary magazine Cairn.
Then there was the short-lived Mole Press, which indirectly derived from a project by Jonathan Williams and a couple of other Black Mountain alumni (Fielding Dawson and Lyle Bonge) during a residency at St. Andrews in 1975. I had graduated but was living less than one hundred miles away near Chapel Hill, working as a reporter/photographer for a weekly newspaper in Mebane. My younger brother Hunter was a sophomore at St. Andrews at the time, and I frequently revisited the campus, especially for events that held special interest for me. The Williams/Dawson/Bonge residency was one such occasion, organized by English professor Whitney Jones (who would later become the Jargon Society’s president). Whitney designated it the Jargon Press Festival. During their residency, Jonathan Williams and his two cohorts worked with studio art professor and future Pynyon founder Bob Tauber to produce a small book of writings, photography, drawings, and collages pertaining to Laurinburg and the surrounding region, known as the Sandhills. Picking up on an idle comment made at a dinner in the visiting artists’ honor, Jonathan titled the volume Hot What? The little book was initially to be published and distributed by St. Andrews’s in-house publishing arm, St. Andrews Press, but that plan got squashed after an amusing local brouhaha stemming from an offhand negative comment Jonathan made in the book about a quirky dining establishment known as Norma’s:
First day: Norma’s Place, Main Street, lunch for 75c — and not worth a penny of it. Norma, alas, turns us off. Only those unborn to the ur-redneck manner would find this grotesquerie some sort of kicker. Miss Norma Forde don’t score no points with JW…
Whitney Jones in 1978. Photo by Jonathan Williams.
Norma threatened to sue the school over this, and so St. Andrews Press was afraid to publish the book. Whitney Jones then came up with the name “Mole Press” to use as the publisher. He couldn’t use a St. Andrews address or even a Laurinburg address, so in an idle moment, I said, “You can use my parents’ address in Georgia.” The very short-lived and really nonexistent Mole Press was officially located in Dublin, Georgia. My parents weren’t alerted in advance, but when orders for a book published by Mole Press began to show up at their house a few weeks later, they rightfully assumed it had something to do with me. A long and convoluted, ridiculous story, but there it is.
Martrich: Do you have any thoughts on Jargon Society’s integration with Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center?
Patterson: For all practical purposes, the Jargon Society was an extension of Jonathan Williams — an expression of his cultural interests and enthusiasms. With Jonathan’s death in 2008, his estate was inherited by his fellow poet, longtime partner (since 1969), and amanuensis Thomas Meyer, who was also left with the responsibility of deciding what would become of the Jargon Society. Although Jargon published several of his books over the years, Meyer — a very different kind of poet than Williams — has always maintained his own poetic identity and career, and most of his books have been issued by other publishers. I wouldn’t presume to speak for Meyer, but I think it safe to say that he didn’t feel it was his responsibility to perpetuate the Jargon Society beyond Jonathan’s lifetime. And yet, there remained a substantial publishing legacy, as well as a sizable inventory of unsold Jargon titles to consider.
To address this fact, Meyer chose — wisely, I think — to formally convey what remained of the Jargon Society to the Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, a nonprofit organization founded in the early 1990s to celebrate and educate the public about Black Mountain and its legacy. Based in Asheville — within one hundred miles of the home Meyer had long shared with Williams — it was not only organizationally well-equipped to take on this responsibility, but also an appropriate venue. Williams was a student at Black Mountain when he issued most of Jargon’s early titles in the 1950s, and the Press’s early history was inextricably bound up with that of the college. Most of the writers and artists whose work Jargon published in those days (including Charles Olson, Joel Oppenheimer, Robert Creeley, and Robert Rauschenberg) were teaching or studying at Black Mountain at the time. In the years since Meyer formally conveyed the Jargon Society to the BMCM+AC, it has served as an outlet for sales of Jargon titles still in print, as well as a forum for presenting exhibitions and readings by individuals previously associated with Jargon. In theory, the BMCM+AC can publish new books under the Jargon imprint, although there are no such plans presently in the works, as far as I am aware. I can think of no other group or organization more appropriate to have taken on the role of Jargon’s latter-day custodian — the custodian of the “custodian of snowflakes,” to borrow Hugh Kenner’s phrase.