What makes for a winning children’s picture book? Bright, engaging illustrations; humor and a songlike quality to the story; and a sense of joy and playfulness that encourages youngsters to turn the pages again and again. Three talented Vermonters have worked together to produce such a book in Noah’s Song.
The book had its start in poet Jerry Johnson’s second volume, Up the Creek Without a Saddle. Jon Gailmor, who set some in that collection, including “Noah’s Song,” to music, calls Johnson’s poems, "delightfully unencumbered and heartfelt. They exude a love of nature and the creatures therein.” Finally, artist Adrien Patenaude was enlisted to provide the colorful, appealing illustrations throughout the book.
Elmore resident Gailmor, an acclaimed songwriter and educator, a world-traveler who in 1996 helped carry the Olympic torch on its way to Atlanta and has toured with the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, says, “It's always a challenge to turn poetry into lyrics, but Jerry was such a good sport about letting me 'Jerrymander' his words, for the sake of music, that our artistic marriage was smooth and mutually fulfilling." A CD accompanies Noah’s Song. Young readers will delight in keeping pace with Gailmor’s lively, masterful rendition.
Patenaude, who held a BFA from the Swain School of Design, was well known for his love of northern Vermont and his whimsical landscapes. Painting the changing seasons and the interplay of light on the land helped him, he said, “see more than just the reality of what I see before me.” Many of his illustrations for Noah’s Song are not only beautiful in their simplicity, but cleverly capture the book’s theme of joy and inclusion as well.
Author Johnson, the “Creek Road Poet,” a former tennis pro and retired Fitchburg State University professor who makes his home in a restored schoolhouse in Albany, has an abiding love of animals, the natural world, and the beauty of the Northeast Kingdom. An active member of a number of professional associations, including the League of Vermont Writers, Johnson holds workshops about publishing and loves going into schools to teach children how to write poems. Noah’s Song is his third book.
Jerry Johnson with good pal, Toby. Photo by Carolyn Bates
How does an engineer and former math and computer science teacher end up writing poetry?
Even though my education and career have been in engineering and teaching mathematics and computer science, I’ve always had a penchant for the arts and for writing, in particular. I’ve been writing poems and stories since grade school. My father was a longtime theater person as a director and actor and was an excellent writer. He was my first writing coach when I was in junior high.
I like using both sides of my brain and believe it helps with my writing. To be good in mathematics and engineering, one has to be a problem solver. For me, writing a poem involves problem solving. First, something has to trigger a poem to come to me. The trigger might be a stone wall, an animal in the woods, one of my pets, a person, or something that has had an impact in my life. I immediately write something down, perhaps a phrase or sentence. Then I work on the first version of the poem. It could take a day, a week, months and, in some cases, years before the poem is finished. I’m always checking to see if the rhythm is correct, if the poem flows in a good way, if it will be understandable by a potential reader. It all gets down to problem solving.
I feel that my background in engineering, mathematics and computer science has been a plus in helping me to write poems.
Do you see a connection between your love of tennis and your writing style?
Absolutely! I feel there is a definite connection between my love of tennis and my writing style. Tennis is a poetically aesthetic game. It’s a ballet. It’s boxing without gloves. Tennis is a game of rhythm, balance, movement, physicality, ebb and flow, as is poetry. When I played for rankings through the years, I played my best tennis when the rhythm was there, when I “let it flow.” It’s called “being in the zone.” You’re not forcing it; the muscles and brain don’t tighten up. You breathe deeply between points and changeovers. Those are your best days; you’re not getting too analytical about it and you let the mind relax.
Tennis has influenced my writing style. When I write a poem, I try to keep my mind and muscles relaxed. I don’t get too analytical. I breathe deeply. I’m constantly on the look out to see if the rhythm is working and if the poem is flowing properly.
Who are some of your favorite poets?
My list of favorite poets is long, but here are some: Jane Kenyon, Linda Pastan, Geof Hewitt, Billy Collins, Donald Hall, Diane Swan, Sherry Olson, Galway Kinnell, Sydney Lea, Mary Oliver, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg.
Adrien "Yellow" Patenaude
with his painting of Johnson's farm
with his painting of Johnson's farm
"To honor Adrien . . . .all the profit from the sale of the first 500 signed
and numbered copies went to art scholarships in his name." -- Jerry Johnson
Author Howard Frank Mosher describes Up the Creek Without a Saddle, as "a lovely hymn to a beautiful place and a rural way of life that may well soon exist only in Mr. Johnson’s heartfelt poetry." Do you worry about this way of life slipping away?
I was touched by the quote Howard provided for Up the Creek Without a Saddle. The reasons I love living in the Northeast Kingdom are imbedded in my love of its natural and rural beauty and because it changes at a slower rate than other parts of Vermont. But it is changing. If someone had told me ten years ago that monstrous wind turbines would be placed on the beautiful ridgelines in the Kingdom and in other locations in Vermont, I wouldn’t have believed it would happen. In regard to writing about natural scenes and animals around me, it’s something I love to do. It’s in my blood.
I’m quite concerned about the loss of creatures in the wild. It has been estimated that there has been a loss of upward of 50 percent of overall animal populations throughout the world over the past four decades. Mahatma Gandhi stated, “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Much of poetry reflects my love of animals—horses that have been a part of my life, my dogs and barn cats, and animals in the wild. Animals have a lot to teach us. I love sharing with my readers what I’ve learned from my four-legged friends, both wild and domesticated. I love sharing the birth of a foal, the love of a golden retriever and barn cat, and scenes from nature. Hopefully, my poetry has positive impact on people and their connection to animals and the natural world around them.
You've self-published your work, quite successfully. I won’t ask you to reveal details, but I do know many traditionally published poets would envy your book sales. What’s the secret to that success?
There have been thousands of poets and writers who have successfully self-published their work. From the past, they include Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe, E. E. Cummings and T. S. Eliot. On the recent scene in Vermont alone, they include Peter Miller, Bill Schubart, Ted Tedford, and poets Diane Swan and Sherry Olson.
I collaborated with Virgo eBooks Publishing for Up the Creek Without a Saddle. Virgo is a small indie press, home-based in Vermont and with roots in New York City and Romania. They did a wonderful job on the paperback version of the book and the eBook and iBook versions. The book is available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble and on several eBook and iBook platforms. Sixteen of my book’s 99 poems were set into song by Jon Gailmor and Pete Sutherland, two legendary Vermont master musicians, for a beautiful CD that goes with the book. I include the CD for free when the book is ordered on my website. A major part of my secret of success was realizing there is a relationship between poetry and music and collaborating with Jon and Pete to set my poems to music.
Noah’s Song which I published under my Creek Road Press imprint as a limited edition, is not yet on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, but will be soon when we release the trade edition. Adrien Patenaude, my longtime dear friend and the illustrator for this children’s book, passed away in May. To honor Adrien, I wanted to make sure all the profit from the sale of the first 500 signed and numbered copies went to art scholarships in his name, and I wanted to maximize the profit. Therefore, I put Noah’s Song only on my website and told a lot of people about the book. I’m happy to say all 500 have been sold and there are thousands of dollars in the scholarship. People are still ordering the book. My goals are to find a publisher who will do a trade edition of Noah’s Song and get it out on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. If that doesn’t happen, I will continue with my Creek Road Press imprint and do it myself.
I guess another part of my “secret” of my success has to do with my love of sharing my work. I love to do interviews and readings that include playing the CD. One of my favorite things is school visits. Getting kids psyched up on poetry and teaching them how to write poetry gives me a high. I’ve been blessed with so many people who have helped along the way, people who have believed in me and my work, including well-known authors such as Vermont Poet Laureate Sydney Lea who have provided endorsements and my two musicians. It’s an incredible feeling when someone says to me, “Jerry, this is the first time I’ve enjoyed poetry. I understand what you write and I love your poems set to music!”
Are your CDs produced and books printed locally?
My Up the Creek Without a Saddle book and its CD are printed and produced by Createspace and available on Amazon. I also have a local Vermont company produce the CDs I insert into the Up the Creek and Noah’s Song books. Noah’s Song is printed by Lightning Source, a division of Ingram.
For Noah's Song, which author Reeve Lindbergh calls a "wild and warmhearted rhyming tale . . . full of happy mayhem," you joined forces with two other Vermonters, the late artist Adrien Patenaude and musician Jon Gailmor. How did this collaboration come about?
As I was writing Up the Creek Without a Saddle, I had a dream of finding a talented Vermont musician who could take some of the poems and set them to music. A number of friends throughout Vermont recommended that I contact Jon Gailmor and Pete Sutherland. I truly appreciated their suggestions as I soon discovered that Jon and Pete were two much beloved master musicians. It was a thrill when they took sixteen of my book’s poems and beautifully set them to music for an album that accompanies the book.
One of the poems sung by Jon on the album is “Noah’s Song.” Upon hearing his captivating rendition, I had another dream, which was to publish “Noah’s Song” as an illustrated children’s book and have Jon’s musical version accompany it. I was quite familiar with the work of my friend Adrien “Yellow” Patenaude and he asked me to give him a shot at the doing the illustrations. I’m glad I did! Collaborating with Jon and Adrien for Noah’s Song was a dream come true.
Jon Gailmor performing at the 2012 Tropical Storm Irene Anniversary
Commemorative Gathering, Chandler Music Hall, Randolph, VT
Commemorative Gathering, Chandler Music Hall, Randolph, VT
Patenaude's illustrations for Noah's Song are colorful and charming, and many of them would make fun decorations for children. Have you considered offering some as prints?
I agree! Adrien and I talked about offering some of his illustrations as prints and broadsides. It is definitely something I’ll consider.
What advice would you give writers interested in self-publishing?
Find a good company to work with. Interview the company. Ask questions. Let them interview you to find out what your goals are. Involve others (editors, proofreaders, etc.) You want to make sure your book is devoid of typos. It’s important to work with people with whom you feel comfortable. Have fun!
What's next for the Creek Road Poet?
There are a number of things on my plate. I definitely want to publish another children’s book. I’d also like to republish my first book, A Bed of Leaves, which I first published in 2004. I’ve been working on a mystery novella. In addition, I’d like to publish a collection of my equine poems. John Fusco (screenwriter for Hidalgo and Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron) who provided me with a nice quote for my Up the Creek Without a Saddle book, has read my equine poems manuscript and has shown support.
The challenge is finding time to get things done. But I do know this: There are people who will help when I need them. I’ve been blessed that way.
For more information on Noah’s Song or his other works, visit Jerry Johnson’s site: www.vtpoet.com. Read about Jon Gailmor, book him for a performance or workshop, or order his six CDs at www.jongailmor.com.
This interview appears in the January 2015 issue of THE NORTH STAR MONTHLY. Visit their site: