Paul Ingram, the legendary book buyer at Prairie Lights in Iowa City, Iowa, since 1989, is joining another elite group: booksellers who are published authors. The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram will be released in June by Ice Cube Press, a small publisher that has operated out of the Iowa City area for just over 20 years and has approximately 70 titles in print. Ice Cube, which specializes in publishing fiction, nonfiction, and poetry by Midwestern authors, is distributed by Partners, Ingram, and Baker & Taylor.
If it hadn’t been for the persistence of commission rep Bruce J. Miller of Miller Trade Marketing (PW’s 2013 Rep of the Year), The Lost Clerihews might have remained undiscovered. In the late 1980s, Miller and his brother, Eric, who were then partnering as reps covering the Midwest for a number of scholarly and small presses, published four or five issues of a newsletter that they distributed to “about 15 top Midwestern bookstores.” The Miller brothers included Ingram’s clerihew's in every issue. “I always thought they should be published—we called it “Clerihew Corner,’ ” Miller said, adding, “Paul is brilliant.”
A clerihew was conceptualized by British crime writer Edmund Clerihew Bentley in the early 20th century; Bentley felt that the traditional limerick verse form encouraged obscenity. “He had no notion that if someone could write a dirty limerick, [that person] could also write a dirty clerihew,” Ingram said. He explained that the first line of the clerihew must include the name of a famous person, who is mocked in the subsequent lines. The first and second lines rhyme, and the third and fourth lines also form a couplet. Ingram admitted that composing clerihews became almost “a mania” with him, and said he would write them on anything handy: napkins, scraps of paper, receipts, matchbook covers.
“I get tired of people who can’t say anything bad,” Ingram said joking. “And it’s such a great piece of writing. But it nearly cost me my marriage and many of my friends.” After submitting 150 of his clerihews to a major publisher for publication “early on,” and being rejected, Ingram lost track of the bits of paper on which so many of them were written. One day last year, however, Ice Cube’s publisher, Steve Semken, at the suggestion of Miller, asked Ingram to recite a few of his favorites. According to Ingram, afterward, Semken asked him, “How many of them have you got?” Ingram said he had as many as 150, and Semken responded that Ice Cube would publish them—if Ingram could produce them. Ingram reported that, upon searching his house, he found a “mother lode” of them on “damp, discolored” scraps of paper in his basement, and the project immediately moved forward. Approximately 115 clerihews were readied for publication. Miller stepped in once again, connecting Semken and Ingram with his wife, Julia Anderson-Miller, an artist who has previously illustrated three books. Anderson-Miller illustrated Lost Clerihews with black-and-white line drawings accompanying each clerihew, after researching each personality lampooned by Ingram; she confessed that she had never even heard of some of the more obscure clerihews targets. “It was pure inspiration, with a little wink,” she said.
The print run for The Lost Clerihews is going to be 5,000 copies; as Semken said, “Paul is pretty well known.” Typical Ice Cube print runs range from 1,000 to 1,500 copies for prose titles and about 200 for poetry. The samplers that Ingram circulated at the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute in Seattle this year were well received by his fellow booksellers.
Semken recalled that 20 years ago, he was “so intimidated” when initially approaching Prairie Lights Books to ask it to carry his first Ice Cube release, River Tips and Tree Trunks, which he himself had written. It has sold 1,500 copies to date. Semken noted that today, Ice Cube has sold 5,000 copies of its bestselling title, a true-crime book called Brother’s Blood: A Heartland Cain and Abel by Scott Cawelti (2011), and he’s often at Prairie Lights, “setting up deals” with Ingram. “I’m glad Paul’s having a book published; I’m glad Julia is involved; I’m surprised I’m doing it,” Semken remarked. “I feel like I’ve arrived.”
Update: A foreword by Elizabeth McCracken has been added, and Roz Chast, Jane Hamilton, and Daniel Menaker have provided blurbs.