Interview: Paul Ingram sheds light on his new book and talks about his rhyming verbal tick

Paul Ingram
The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram is available at Prairie Lights and New Bo Books. — photo by Barry Phipps

Paul Ingram writes clerihew
So I asked if he’d share a few
He replied, “You’re a crook —
Go buy the book.”

“How’s that — did I do it right?” I ask.

Paul’s eyes close, his head tilts back as a grin takes over his face and he exclaims, “Wonderful! That’s the perfect place to start the interview. ‘Clerihew’ and ‘share a few’ is a great rhyme!”

For those of you who haven’t met Paul Ingram, he is an Iowa City icon and fixture at Prairie Lights Books. Like countless others, I have, over the years, received numerous book recommendations from Ingram, and, when I’m wise enough to follow up on his suggestions, I have always thoroughly enjoyed his picks.

An impassioned booklover his whole life, Ingram has recently thrown his own hat into the ring with the release of his book, The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram. For those unfamiliar, a clerihew is a four line poem about a famous individual that follows the rhyming convention of AABB. Ingram’s book, which has recaptured this forgotten form, is available at Prairie Lights Books, host of the book’s launch party on June 23 from 5-8 p.m. Ingram will also be reading from his book on June 25 at CSPS Hall in Cedar Rapids.

Paul, you’ve been a book lover your whole life. Tell me about these clerihews and how this book came to be published.

Let me start by saying it began 15-20 years ago. I’d known about clerihews but had always felt myself … unequal to them. But I read one in a literary magazine, I think it was by this Canadian writer named Opal Nations. He’s mostly a rock critic, but he wrote… “Helen Keller / Had only a smeller / But through her zeal / Learned to talk like a seal

Once I saw that, my mind began … spilling. And … I’m not sure, but I might have had a kind of … manic episode. I was talking — I was going up to strangers — and I was talking clerihews, and I did this until I was forced to stop. My wife really did most of the stopping. You know, she had to live with me! But that happened, and about half of them were really pretty good. And that’s why the book is called The Lost Clerihews of Paul Ingram.

Are the people you depict all authors?

No! Michael Jackson / Looked anglo-saxon / Due to some nasty / Rhinoplasty

OK! Clearly you haven’t limited yourself. So why didn’t you publish these 15, 20 years ago?

Well I never believed for a minute that they would sell. I mean, how could I sell these? But I had given them to all my sales reps hoping that they would show them to somebody; and I sent one batch out to a place. And I got them sent them back soooo fast. The worst thing to hear from somebody you’re trying to curry favor with is, “How did you get my address?”

Oh no.

Yeah, once you hear that, it’s completely over. So I never tried again, but I kept writing them once in awhile, because I’d get those first two lines.

My fastest was: Ethel Mermin / Gets rid of vermin / By singing Cole Porter / For an hour and a quarter

That one just flooooowed out of mouth.

Alright, Ethel Mermin had that brash voice, so there’s an element of biographical truth about the individual. Is that intentional on your part?

No. For the most part truth is incidental. If it happens, fine, but for my version of the clerihew — not for G.K. Chesterston’s, but for mine — form carries meaning. So, if I’ve got a good rhyme, that’s just too bad. And the rhyme … the rhyme is like the prize in the Cracker Jack.

But where did these come from? Do you write poetry in a traditional sense?

No. I don’t like poetry. Well, I don’t understand most poetry. I love about … 20 poets. I see it almost as more of a neurological tick than a literary form. I’d wake up in the morning and say, “Vivian Vance put cheese in her pants.”

Well, that’s part of why I enjoy clerihews so much: They’re about the absurdity and the rhyme itself.

Yes! It’s the elevation of silliness! Still, there are some people that don’t want anything said that anyone could misinterpret. I wrote one, and I called the person up and left the clerihew on their answering machine. And I got a call later — they were upset wanting to know what I meant by it, and I had to say, “Nothing. It’s going on in my mind. It’s a rhyme!”

My experience, though, is that people who are funny tend to like them. People who aren’t tend to be suspicious: They want to know what you’re up to.

Part of what I like about your clerihews is that they sort of walk the line between being a little dirty but not overly crass. Can you talk a bit about your general aesthetic principle?

I do use a few naughty words. Like: Sebastian Bach / Had a wen on his cock / Said the good doctor Steiner, / “This mass should be minor”


You have to do that! You can’t not do that.

But as I understand it, the clerihew originally came about from the English novelist Edmund Clerihew Bentley as a sort of retaliation for how crude the limerick had become, right?

Yeah, and for some peculiar reason [Bentley] felt that people wouldn’t do the same with clerihews! Clerihews are even better because they’re specifically about one person: Brigham Young / Was highly strung / And delivered his rants / In special underpants

And again, there’s that nugget of truth in there. Are you sure you’re not reading Wikipedia articles or …

No. If you are a bookseller for 40 years in Iowa City, you know virtually every name in history. I’ve looked through thousands of catalogues and I’ve seen these names, and I’ve got a great name memory.

Alright, so how did this move from being a hobby and napkin jot to an actual book?

Well, I recited a couple in front of Steve [Semken], the publisher at Ice Cube Press, and he said, “I’ll publish them.” He said, “How many you got?” I said, “Lots.” He said, “I’ll publish them,” and my sales rep-Bruce Miller was there — and, uh … rejoiced! And Bruce’s wife does illustrations, so the next day I got 25 illustrations from her — she was on task — and thus the book became illustrated.

How many names ended up in the final book?

Between a 100-120.

And that was culled down from how many?

Three hundred or so. Some of them were incredibly juvenile, as you might expect. So I just dropped those completely. They were naughty to be naughty. What was really a pain was deciding what order to put them in.

So how did you go about doing that? Did you try to be chronological? Order them by their profession?

I told my publisher, “You do it.” Put ’em in whatever order you want. So the illustrator made a deck of cards of the clerihews and they arranged them all these different ways.

How’s the reception to the book been so far?

I got a great blurb on the cover from Roz Chast, who is the most popular current cartoonist for the New Yorker. She wrote a book called, Can’t we Talk About Something More Pleasant? which is one of the funniest and one of the saddest books I’ve ever read. You really need to read it.

Then my friend Richard Howorth, who is probably the most famous bookseller in America, wrote me the nicest blurb that didn’t get used on the book. He said, “Ingram has elevated the form.” That is what I wanted to hear.

No better compliment than that, right?

Well, when you get overconfident you realize that the world is not a university town. And a lot of people- just aren’t getting [my clerihews]. I showed my book to one person; I said, “Take a look,” and she said, “Are these real people?” Which is a problem if you want to sell a lot of them. That’s why I’m putting them on Twitter.

So what are your future plans with this? Are you going to keep riding this pony?

Oh yeah. T-shirts. I’ve got a kids shirt already.

Mother Goose/ And Doctor Suess / Kept me alive / When I was five

And clearly beyond. Last question for you: You’ve been a book lover for so long, how does it feel to finally see your own work captured and sitting there, hard copy on the shelf?

It feels great. It feels great.

You know, I had a dream that waved me away from having a reading of clerihews. I dreamt I was at the Englert, and the Englert was as big as Yankee stadium, and I was this tiny guy down there, and I was reading one little four-line poem after another — and [I thought] “No! It doesn’t go!” It’s an intimate form. Which reminds me — on June 23 at Prairie Lights from 5-8 p.m., we’ll be hosting a sort of drop by. It’s on a Monday night and I want it to be loose. It’s not a reading — it’s a party. Stop on by.

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