15 Years of Ice Cube Press: Making the Midwest Cool | Making the Midwest Cool

Publisher Steve Semken with recent works from Ice Cube Press.

About 12 years ago, while I was teaching at Michigan State University, my family and I began to think seriously about returning to Iowa. I had gone to graduate school at the University of Iowa, and my wife and I had fallen in love with both Iowa City and Iowa in general. We never got over it.

In the midst of my burgeoning understanding of place and the idea of a return to Iowa, I struck up an electronic acquaintance with a writer and publisher who had some amazingly coincident ideas—Steve Semken of the Ice Cube Press, located in the Iowa City area in North Liberty.

As I grew to know Steve, I found him to be someone who passionately understood the need for connection to place and practiced that understanding with a deep, sincere love for his native Midwest. Steve published his second book, Moving with the Elements, during these early days of our correspondence, so I sought it and his first book, River Tips and Tree Trunks. What I discovered was writing that was delightfully authentic in its portrayal of the Midwestern landscape but with a unique edge. The spiritual dimension of Steve’s connection to place suffused his writing with a different sort of depth than one usually finds in typical paeans to the prairie, and the flights of imagination into mythical territory were often surreal and sometimes downright crazy. Cloud kings and prairie giants were just as likely to inhabit Iowa and Kansas as cornfields and small-town diners. This Steve Semken guy was truly an original.

Since its first newsletter publication of Sycamore Roots in 1993, Steve Semken’s Ice Cube Press has become a crucial voice for telling the stories of what it means to be a Midwesterner. Steve knew instinctively that, while words on a page are powerful, they are not sufficient for the full alchemy of place-based living. So as the millennium neared, Steve branched out into live programming. His annual Harvest Lecture became a regional must-do appointment that brought in people to share their stories of land and spirit.

I finally met Steve in person upon my return to Iowa in 1999, when Ice Cube Press and the Harvest Lecture were really coming into their own. Before long, the two intersected, and the Harvest Lecture, for several years, was organized around an annual book of several notable—and sometimes new—writers and readings of their work. True to the aim of wanting people to connect to their place, Steve eventually expanded the Lecture to a multi-city “book tour” of sorts, and folks in Council Bluffs, Keokuk, Grinnell, Burlington, Cedar Falls, Fairfield, and many places in between enjoyed the exploration of environment and spirit as much as those in the Iowa City area. I had the honor of being published in a few of these anthologies, and now and then I helped Steve out a bit with the organization or publicity for the programs.

In its 15 years, Ice Cube Press has published books by notable writer Stephanie Mills, Kansas Book Award winner Denise Low (Words of a Prairie Alchemist), and this fall, Mary Swander’s best-selling The Desert Pilgrim in a new edition. His title list is ever-expanding in its focus and ambition, branching out from “nature writing” to alternative energy, slow food, and Midwestern survivors of the Nazi concentration camps.  What remains constant, however, is that, as Steve himself often says, Ice Cube Press is dedicated to “hearing the other side.” By reading these books, you will glean much wisdom about what “the other side” can mean here in our place.

Steve is proud of the fact that he has yet to lose money on a publication. That is all the more remarkable since profit is not the ultimate goal of the Ice Cube Press. Steve Semken is truly a man committed to a mission: the importance of publishing work telling the story of our place. I’m glad Steve remains committed to that idea, and I wish Ice Cube Press at least another 15 years of stories and success. 

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