Paul Ingram described Clerihews as poems derived from manic episodes and a “Tourette’s-like explosion” of rhyme, mockery and a famous person’s name. Shortly after sitting down for an interview in his Iowa City home, this well-read, longtime book buyer at revered Prairie Lights bookstore, blurted one out.
Carl Gustav Jung/Was impressively hung/Which sorely annoyed/The good doctor Freud.
“The name is the only thing that is not fictional,” he said. “I don’t want to get sued.”
Ingram has worked at Prairie Lights for 25 years, about the time AABB schemes of rhyme and lampoon started to strangely pop in his head. He discovered Clerihews had literary roots by such masters as W.H. Auden. So there. Years later, Ingram racked his brain to remember his best — newly-relevant as perfect tweet length — and assembled them in a new book from Ice Cube Press called “The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram,” with hilarious illustrations by Julia Anderson-Miller.
Margaret Mead, a reader soon finds out, rhymes with a common potty term. And Sebastian Bach rhymes with … You get it.
If that all seems a tad crass, Ingram says he actually left out the really dirty ones. “I don’t want to offend.”
It’s a bit of a surprise that Ingram, 67, is one of Iowa’s greatest champions of fine literature. So profound is his love of the proper assembly of words, he nearly summons a trio of trumpeters every time he finds a book that is deep and meaningful and important.
Ingram has become the heart of one of the nation’s finest independent bookstores and, it’s no stretch to say, a tastemaker in one of the country’s most literate cities.
“I’m not exaggerating when I say he is one of the top four or five booksellers in the country,” said Prairie Lights owner Jan Weissmiller.
His book fervor is spoken of in Poets & Writers Magazine, his opinions quoted in major newspapers.
People travel to Prairie Lights just so he can guide them to a good book. A father and son fly from the opposite coasts to meet at Prairie Lights once a year and load up on Ingram’s recommendations.
Ingram may have written about John Kennedy “having a go/At Marilyn Monroe” but that’s just our eye-catching way into the encyclopedic literary (and occasionally wicked) mind of Ingram.
HE’S A THROWBACK, REALLY. As bookstores closed in the last couple decades and the mass media trimmed back book reviews, who is even around to make a good recommendation these days?
Ingram will tell you, soon after lamenting that some people don’t actually read. He unwraps his legs, tucked under him on the sofa in his home filled with books and an old-paper smell, and leaps to his feet.
People have described this in the book store, this fervor. (“Customers can do a perfect impression of him,” says Weissmiller.) His arms begin to wave. He stands 5-foot-3 and his brown eyes bulge under his big, round spectacles.
“We need people to help them find books!” he nearly shouts. “I grab them by the shoulders. ‘Here are 10 books that will change your life!’ ”
He is up close now, in your face, a low growl.
“Not just a book that’s pretty good and you toss aside. A book that will change your life!”
He remembers his. He’s 14 and in his parents’ home in Washington, D.C. He grabs a thick one, 800 pages, and opens “Of Human Bondage” by W. Somerset Maugham.
Is his voice really breaking over this?
“It made me cry. It was so potent. So real,” he said, settling back into the sofa, clearly lost now in the memory.
“I have that love and passion for books. It’s something you might remember the rest of your life.”
Ingram remembers exactly when he read “Catcher in the Rye,” and the points of his life when worlds opened up to him turning the pages of other books. A lot of people love books. He’s made a life of it.
HE TRIED COLLEGE at the University of Virginia in the mid-’60s but it was so conservative you had to wear a coat and tie. A friend told him Iowa City would be perfect for him. He liked to read more than anyone he knew. And Iowa City is known as a book town, home to the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop.
The self-described shy man fit in immediately. He found like-minded people who always had something to talk about because when you read books “you have a long conversation ahead of you,” he said.
What better venue to do that than in a bookstore? He got a job at Iowa Book and Supply until Prairie Lights founder Jim Harris noticed his enthusiasm and hired him in 1989.
“It gave me a reason to approach people,” he said of bookselling. “It gave me a sense of self, an outgoing-ness that I never had before.”
Ingram would probably groan if his own lines were in a book: “Some professions are paid in people.” But he soon found customers asking for him because he has read a ton and knows what is good.
“He is really very widely read,” said Weissmiller. “He doesn’t just read fiction. He reads children’s books, poetry, popular science. …”
He doesn’t have much patience for non-readers. He lured his non-reading brother into reading with Kurt Vonnegut books. But he also understands “not everyone has my taste” and accepts their choice of lesser authors. At least they are reading.
“It’s tougher nowadays because what they are publishing is worse. Publishers need to be conservative so they don’t want to try anything different,” he said. “I have five or six zombie books come in and I hate it, I can’t bear it, yet my customers want it. I ended up buying them all because I can’t tell the difference.”
As a buyer for the store, he faces the onslaught of thousands of new titles a year to choose from and sales reps pitching them. He’s read a lot of books only partially. He can tell where many are going in the first 10 pages. He’s seen it play out before.
John Mesjak, a Midwest sales rep for publishers at Abraham Associates in Chicago, calls Ingram one of the few “legendary” buyers for his deep knowledge and sense of history.
“His real talent is curiosity about what is interesting and new and exciting, and to have that long history of what people in Iowa City are interested in. He can retain all that and match it up with readers in Iowa City. He remembers all his books.
“He can walk up and down that wall of fiction and gauge the customer’s reaction and say, ‘OK, I’ve got this one, too.’ Because he filled that wall and can leap from book to book, getting his gauge on you.”
Mesjak says people like Ingram are vital in the democratized Internet age, when it seems everyone is writing a blog that becomes a self-published memoir, but few help readers wade through what is good.
“They talk about this as removing barriers to writers and readers but the booksellers I stand for resist disintermediation,” he said of removing the middle man. “We need those filters, not gatekeepers to keep people away, but to help people find what they need.
“People like Paul spend their lives helping people find the good stuff.”
INGRAM LIKES AUTHORS but isn’t shy about taking a crack at them in his book of Clerihews, some veering into the depths of rumors or factoids.
Perfect, he said, for English majors.
Gustave Flaubert/Was seldom sober/He wrote Madam Bovary/While in recovery.
The Clerihews came to him during a six-month period of mania, he said. After all, he was spending his days looking at publishers’ catalogs, long lists of author names, and a kind of dreamlike crazy rhyming started.
“I told myself, ‘Paul, you’ve got to stop.’ I was starting to drive my friends away. ‘Listen to this!’ They liked it up to a point.”
Some names are perfect for a Clerihew. “When you hear Helen Keller, your eyes light up,” he said.
Helen Keller/Played Fuzzy Zoeller/With a handicap of four/Though she should have gotten more.
Some authors are friends, including Elizabeth McCracken, who wrote the foreword and will join him at his book launch at Prairie Lights June 23. Workshop writers even join his book club discussions at the store.
But the long list of famous visiting authors who read at Prairie Lights are just as likely to ask him where to score weed in Iowa City.
He doesn’t say if he helped in any way. He’s just happy they often send a publicist along to babysit the real partiers.
Now, if those authors want to ask him how to score a good book — stand back and watch the arms fly.
If they want their own Clerihew?
“I don’t do requests,” Ingram said.
Register reporter Mike Kilen tells the stories of Iowans across the state. Contact him at email@example.com
Buy his book: At bookstores in Iowa or www.icecubepress.com.
Hear him read: 6 p.m. June 23, Prairie Lights Bookstore, 15 S. Dubuque St., Iowa City; 7 p.m. June 25, CSPS, 1103 Third St., S.E., Cedar Rapids.
Ingram, book buyer at Prairie Lights, shared some thoughts on books and Clerihews:
One of his favorite authors: Daniel Woodrell (“Winter’s Bone”) because he is from the Midwest and his stories are heartbreaking, original, hard to categorize.
New books he loves: Sebastian Barry’s “The Temporary Gentleman” is amazingly good. The recently-released paperback version of “During the Reign of the Queen of Persia” by Joan Chase is so good it reminds him of the late Frank Conroy, former director of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, who loved Chase’s books.
50 books he would rather be reading:
“The Tin Drum” by Gunther Grass
“The Deptford Trilogy” by Robertson Davies
“Riddley Walker” by Russell Hoban
“Book of Ebenezer LePage” by G.B. Edwards
“Time Will Darken It” by William Maxwell
“So Long, See You Tomorrow” by William Maxwell
“My Antonia” by Willa Cather
“Do the Windows Open?” by Julie Hecht
“Stones for Ibarra” by Harriet Doerr
“The Mercy Seat” by Rilla Askew
“Long Long Way” by Sebastian Barry
“The Story of Lucy Gault” by William Trevor
“Masters of Atlantis” by Charles Portis
“True Grit” by Charles Portis
“Collected Stories” by Eudora Welty
“The Heart is a Lonely Hunter” by Carson McCullers
“The Moviegoer” by Walker Percy
“The Emigrants” by Vilhjalmer Moberg
“A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” by Betty Smith
“A Gift of Stones” by Jim Crace
“Housekeeping” by Marilynne Robinson
“Home” by Marilynne Robinson
“A Blessing on the Moon” by Joseph Skibell
“Observatory Mansions” by Ed Carey
“When Madeline Was Young” by Jane Hamilton
“Moby Dick” by Herman Melville
“Pickwick Papers” by Charles Dickens
“A Death in the Family” by James Agee
“The Friends of Eddie Coyle” by George V. Higgins
“The Tie That Binds” by Kent Haruf
“The Unvanquished” by William Faulkner
“Absalom, Absalom” by William Faulkner
“The Handmaid’s Tale” by Margaret Atwood
“Of Human Bondage” by W. Somerset Maugham
“The Living” by Annie Dilliard
“White Bone” by Barbara Gowdy
“The Colony of Unrequited Dreams” by Wayne Johnston
“The Man with the Golden Arm,” by Nelson Algren
“1984” by George Orwell
“In the Heart of Borneo,” by Redmond O’Hanlon
“The Intuitionist” by Colson Whitehead
“Music and Silence” by Rose Tremain
“The Hamilton Case” by Michele de Kretzer
“The Afterlife of George Cartwright” by John Steffler
“Fugitive Pieces” by Anne Michaels
“Old Filth” by Jane Gardam
“Clara Callan” by Richard B. Wright
“Sarah Canary” by Karen Joy Fowler
“The Far Euphrates” by Aryeh Lev Stollman
“The Blackwater Lightship” by Colm Toibin
On Clerihews: Ingram would be delighted if his fanciful rhyming inspired others to share. He’ll be watching his Facebook page, “The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram,” for a laugh.