Photo by George Krause
Issue: Summer 2005
Alumni Profile - Corinne Lee
A Poet Who Didn’t Know It
’83 grew up with dreams of writing great works of fiction. She took
several creative writing courses at USC and graduated as a Thematic
Option scholar with a concentration in English. She then set forth into
the world figuring she would publish her first book – a collection of
short stories, she hoped – by the age of 25.
But life, as
she learned, rarely goes as planned. During her second semester at the
Iowa Writer’s Workshop, where she had a fellowship in fiction, she
began to lose the use of her hands; the pain soon became unbearable.
Her condition baffled doctors, some of whom suggested it was a
psychological reaction to a suppressed fear of writing.
“I really believed the doctors when they said it was psychological. I
was young, na´ve and frightened,” she recalls. “It took a long time for
me to really own my pain.”
Lee continued to write, though she physically toiled over every word.
Just before her 30th birthday, however, her medical mystery was solved.
A doctor discovered large processes, bone birth defects, just above the
elbows in each of her arms. After a half-dozen surgeries over 10 years’
time, she had new arms and felt as if her life was finally beginning.
As time wore on, Lee picked up her pen again and tried her hand at
poetry. She composed nearly 200 poems, most of which she claims were
It was during the 2003 holiday season that her poetry finally began to
flow forth with fervor. The abandoned tone of her work, however, really
caught Lee off-guard.
“I never would have imagined my voice to be so bizarre and almost
uncontrollable,” she says. “It’s not a voice I would have anticipated
With a hefty stack of poems in hand, Lee compiled them into a
manuscript and, at her husband’s urging, submitted it to the National
Poetry Series, which selects five contemporary collections each year
for publication and a $1,000 award. She was stunned to learn she was
named one of the 2004 winners, and that Penguin Books would publish her
collection, PYX, in May 2005.
With its rich vocabulary and colorful imagery, Lee’s poetry feels like
the product of intense, sustained writing sessions; readers would never
guess that much of it was composed on scraps of paper while the poet
was standing in line at the grocery store or sitting in a parking lot.
As a mother of two pre-school aged children, Lee has a limited window
of time each day to focus on her work.
“It’s difficult to have any kind of sustained hobby when someone’s constantly asking you for apple juice,” she says.
As both a busy mom and a relatively inexperienced poet, Lee understands
the magnitude of the opportunity the National Poetry Series provided
her. She is returning the gift: She now owns her own small publishing
company, Winnow Press, the aim of which is to publish writers who would
be overlooked by mainstream publishers.
“A lot of contemporary poetry is sliding under the public’s radar
because people aren’t being educated in it,” she says. “I believe there
is a renaissance going on in American poetry, and I wanted to be a part
of that,” she says.