Corinne Lee and Finding an Antidote to America’s Toxicity


Corinne Lee’s first book Pyx, published by Penguin, led to her being chosen as one of the top ten emerging poets in America by the Poetry Society. After more than a decade, she’s just published her second, the book-length poem Plenty. A sequel or companion to Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the book is all too conscious of the state of the world today.

Lee examines her own family’s history of glassmaking in America and Europe, and the environmental toll that it has taken since 1892 up through the present. With glassmaking at its hub, the book reaches outward, bringing in the Holocaust, The Sixth Extinction, the prison industrial complex, and the haunting future: if one loves America, Lee seems to ask, what does it mean to love something that is literally toxic? It is a dizzying and stunning work.

Lee and I talked about crafting an epic and trying to find new ways to think about and live in the world, which humanity is changing so profoundly.


The Rumpus: I think that any book length poem is a massively ambitious undertaking, but I think this is more ambitious than most. Where does a book like Plenty begin?

Corinne Lee: I’ve wanted to write an epic ever since I was in middle school and first read The Iliad and The Odyssey. Writing an epic is such a delicious combination of greed, hubris, and exile—all faults of mine that I wanted to examine and dismantle. There are only a handful of epic poems written by women, and I felt that men’s epics did not always echo my concerns. However, I wanted to create a work that didn’t have a linear path (as established by epics written by men and as determined by male critics to be canonical). I also wanted the poem’s movement to be unpredictable, even erratic, on multiple levels—to sustain readers’ attention as well as mine.

In short, I desired to both oppose and enlarge epic conventions. For example, the poem is associative, not narrative, in structure, and it contains many register shifts; women are presented as being heroic; the typical epic catalog and simile are methodically turned inside-out; the gods are questioned; and American culture is interrogated re: technology, pollution, racism, etc. The stance is skeptical and angry, at least in the first half. At the beginning, for example, there is a line stating that the invocation is not “to a muse, but with a fuse.”

Rumpus: You mention in the preface that you use Leaves of Grass as a springboard and describe Plenty as “a footnote to, or commentary on” it. What does that mean to you? Did your thinking about that relationship change over the course of writing the book?

Lee: The critic Marjorie Perloff made the first edition of Leaves of Grass reverberate like a tuning fork for me. For example, she rhapsodized about the frontispiece, an engraving of Walt Whitman by Samuel Hollyer. Whitman’s stance is cocky, virile, and sensual. His attitude is direct, frank, and democratic. However, he also appears skeptical; one eyebrow is raised, and his lips are slightly parted, as if he’s about to rebut the viewer. There is a ferocity to his sexuality: he could seduce anyone and anything, it seems. The overall effect is very “come hither”—but also gives the impression that to meet his gaze unfettered would be like making love with an atomic bomb.

In Plenty, I wanted to achieve that same effect, but with a speaker that has a fluctuating, ambiguous gender and sexual orientation. I also wanted to channel that confidence and rage, tempered with eroticism, to express my anguish and joy about America and being American. What would it be like, I thought, to make love with America—its landscape, people, values, history, etc.—and become toxic in the process? What would the antidote be to that toxicity?

The book originally was three times the size it is now, because I tried to address Leaves of Grass in every way imaginable. For instance, there were dozens of tedious pages about the disturbing impacts of industrialized wheat, which is a form of grass. Then the wonderful poet Dean Young told me to create a “fleet version” of the epic. At first I thought he wanted my poetry to move more quickly. Later, though, I realized that he probably was alluding to Fleet enemas, and he wanted me to gut-flush the poem. So I did. Then the extraordinarily gifted editor Paul Slovak asked pointed questions that made me see the poem through a narrower yet also more expansive lens. And I cut more. Hence the poem as a mere footnote to Whitman’s masterpiece.

Rumpus: Did Buddhism and Buddhist thinking influence how you thought about these issues and how you approached the poem?

Lee: I always had in mind basic ideas of Buddhism, such as the noble truths and precepts, the wheel of life, and the guidelines for enlightenment. Yet I am most moved by the Buddhist concept of anattā, that there is no self. There is no “I” or “you”—no “other”—and thus we should strive without pause to cultivate compassion and alleviate suffering in any form.

Rumpus: You make a good case for 1892 as this key year that can be argued, was the beginning of our contemporary period. For people who don’t know, what happened in 1892?

Lee: I knew that the last, “deathbed” edition of Leaves of Grass was published in 1892, so that of course was critical to my idea of using 1892 as a touchstone for the epic. In using 1892, though, I actually was trying to narrow the field of the book. I could have written thousands of pages of poetry if I hadn’t constricted the focus in some manner. It seemed to me that 1892 was such a potent year, and that excited me as an artist. 1892 seemed like it initiated so much of what shaped and shapes our country.

For example, in 1892: more people were lynched in America than during any other year in our nation’s history; Homer Plessy was arrested for sitting in a “whites only” railway car; the Pledge of Allegiance was written; Ellis Island began accepting immigrants; Edison patented the two-way telegraph; the famous Winchester 1892 model gun was born; the Pawnee of Oklahoma ratified an agreement to accept separate, individual parcels of land and dissolve their communal land holdings; and a group of Americans and Europeans plotted to overthrow Queen Lili‘uokalani, the last monarch of Hawai‘i.

Rumpus: I will admit that I have never thought much about glass or what is required to make glass, but since reading your book I have been obsessing over how much glass I’m seeing and the environmental toll it took to make it. You mention in the preface that your ancestors were glass blowers in colonial America and in Europe before that. Was glass always at the center of your thinking?

Lee: Yes, in fact the original title of the book was Sheaves of Glass. Like so many other immigrants, the route my ancestors took created a perpetual machine that doesn’t seem capable of stopping—they came to America to escape religious persecution, started the glass industry in the New World, left large-scale environmental destruction in their wake (because glass furnaces require massive amounts of wood to burn), and transformed the decimated forests into fields for industrialized agriculture. Now here we are today, with an insatiable need for food, shelter, and land. And glass enables our greed, more than any other substance than petroleum. Consider just glass windows in buildings, which make so much of modern life’s sweetness and sins possible.

Rumpus: That image and that idea, that your ancestors made glass and then on Kristallnacht, glass they made being destroyed, their livelihoods wrecked, some of them carted away. This idea of building industrial civilization and it eating and destroying itself, that it’s not just a question of “others” as in native Hawaiians or people or color or the list goes on, but othering the people who were a part of building everything and a system that can do this is rotten by nature.

Lee: I grew up swimming in Walden Pond, and the works of Thoreau, Emerson, and Dickinson were my bibles. I was a feral child of sorts—my mother was mentally ill, and my father was rarely present. So I essentially was raised by a few books and the forest in rural New England. Over the years, I watched the area where I was raised transform into an extended, pseudo-urban suburb of Boston. For example, thanks to Lyme disease, the yards that were once gloriously rangy fields and woods are now manicured and pesticide-saturated, with wide borders of dyed mulch to keep ticks at bay.

The same process is occurring, but on a more horrifying level, where I live now in San Marcos, Texas, which is home to hundreds of crystal clear springs that have been part of Native American sacred geography for millennia—springs that are, in turn, home to more than a dozen federal endangered plants and animals. Many scholars believe San Marcos is the longest continuously inhabited location in North America. Yet San Marcos also now is the fastest growing city in the United States. The majority of jobs created here garner low wages, perpetuating the feudalistic pay gap, and most homes built here are shoddy, antiseptic, identical boxes. Although I live in the country, a massive Amazon “Fulfillment Center” just opened down the road from my home; a Kafkaesque gulag, it’s a concretized embodiment of our appetites.

As a result of these changes, of course, the water and soil are increasingly contaminated with everything from fire retardants to Prozac—jeopardizing the endangered species but also infecting us all. Whatever we excrete or discard becomes part of us all; the Tylenol I pop with a Starbucks latte is pissed out later and then drunk by my neighbor. This irony is so deep and wide that I find it difficult to contemplate.

Rumpus: At one point in the book I made a note, “I must create a system or be enslaved by another man’s.” Was William Blake and that idea in your mind as you were writing the book?

Lee: I feel that we all are trapped and contaminated by our culture’s apocalyptic, patriarchal greed and violence, and this is particularly distressing to me as a mother. I feel as if our children are being raised in Sparta—a militaristic oligarchy. Violent, hierarchical, weaponized, misogynistic, consumerist media are the training ground/killing fields for America’s children. The more scientists know about theory of mind, the more distressing the influence of media is to me… and the fact that our brains process images approximately 60,000 times faster than text make my worries close to unbearable. Because our minds process images in thirteen milliseconds, anything visual is a conduit of astonishing and terrifying power.

I don’t have a “system” as antidote per se, but I do believe in the unquenchable power of transcendence, spirituality, compassion, and the erotic. And I do find hope in America’s children, who seem increasingly savvy about the perils of subservience to media and the dangers of oligarchy.

Rumpus: That last section of the poem is just pages of these people and animals and plants and objects, which I keep thinking of in relation to plainsong and the call and response parts of the liturgy in church. How hard was it to write and assemble these moments and how did you know that was where the poem would climax?

Lee: I wanted the poem to “climax” in orgiastic but also transcendent and unifying lists. It was not difficult to write each “bead” of the list, but it was challenging to find a rhythm and intuitive logic for their presentation as a whole. In a sense, the poem discharges a lot of static in those lists—and ends in a sort of postcoital, relaxed fluidity.

Rumpus: It’s interesting to hear you speak about the eroticism of Leaves of Grass and how that plays out in your book, because Leaves of Grass remains a really radical book in some ways—were you thinking that Plenty should be similarly radical?

Lee: Nothing in this world surprises me, so I’ve never understood what “radical” means, and I therefore did not spin Plenty around any concept of radicalism. That said, some aspects of Plenty might offend certain readers. There is, for instance, a line in which a goddess gives fellatio to a nudibranch! Yet readers who could be troubled by the poem’s gender-bending and gender-flipping (in terms of the speaker and other actors) probably would not open the book in the first place.

Rumpus: Can you talk a little about the final lines of the book? “Gone is the supervision / of dust”? And just in general, how hard was it to find the ending of this book?

Lee: I wrote the ending of the book first, so it governed every word that preceded it. The last two lines might be difficult to understand without the two that precede it:

“…no more, no how: / Gone is the supervision / of dust.”

I wanted the epic to move toward a rejection of America’s insatiable desire for more—its capitalist ethos of endless acquisition/growthand eventually to spurn our reductive obsession with how questions, such as those of science and technology.

In a list at the beginning of the book, for instance, I question our obsequious love of TED talks. We have tricked ourselves into believing there is a solution, often technological, for every problem—some bacteria will consume all spilled petroleum, and there is always more oil to be found. Yet these are Band-Aid distractions because the real solutions are more difficult and require profound personal, individual change: consume less, embrace mortality, love one another.

On another level, dust is death, and I often feel as if our culture worships death through its obsession with weaponry, violence, consumerism, misogyny, and racism.

Rumpus: It’s been a few years since your first book Pyx was released. Did you spend the entire time working on Plenty?

Lee: I worked on Plenty off and on for a decade, but I also wrote several prose books that have not been published. I never thought Plenty would be published, and I remain astonished and honored that Penguin would choose to publish it. I thought it would be stuffed in a proverbial drawer forever. Paul Slovak was incredibly brave to publish Plenty.

Rumpus: You’re a master naturalist and an environmentalist and clearly that informed Plenty. Do you think that you think like a poet? And how does that compare to thinking like a naturalist?

Lee: I don’t know if I think like a poet. I do know that I often write like a poet—more elliptically, imagistically, and experimentally.

In my work as a naturalist, I am increasingly aware that our earth is closed system: what we put into the world stays, often forever. That is akin to being a poet or any other artist: what one creates can transform the world, and if nothing else, the mere act of creating is transformative. As a naturalist, I specialize in water quality issues. As I mentioned above, an easy example is all the pharmaceuticals Americans consume, perhaps so that we can tolerate our toxic culture. Those drugs end up in our urine, and that urine goes into wastewater treatment plants that are unable to eliminate the chemicals. Most urban water systems are “toilet to tap”; due to dwindling groundwater supplies, wastewater is treated and then consumed as drinking water, and it also is released into rivers and streams.

As a result, we and all other living things are constantly consuming one another’s choices, with disturbing and far-reaching consequences. Catfish, crappie, and bluegill that scientists have examined in North Texas, for instance, have tested positive for Zoloft and Prozac. In response, some of the male fish are turning into females and exhibiting a veritable cornucopia of other effects.

It seems to me that the only approach to this nightmarish state of affairs is to dismantle and rebuild ourselves and our culture, with an emphasis on compassion, love, and—perhaps most difficult of all—extremely limited consumption.

Rumpus: I’m in New England and I’ve seen things get built up and suburban sprawl expand, but I keep seeing nature encroaching in weird ways. It’s nice to romanticize beavers coming back or moose expanding their range, but there are more bears and mountain lions; invasive species are replacing native species; ticks are everywhere and now we have to deal with Lyme disease. Sometimes I feel like I’m watching nature push back a little.

Lee: You are right: romanticizing and anthropomorphizing Nature is tempting. But it’s also a dangerous “out.” For example, we could presume that Nature is pushing back through an increase in some species. However, the truth is that dozens of species are going extinct every day. Many scientists estimate that in our lifetimes, by 2050, between thirty and fifty percent of all species will be extinct or in the process of going extinct. United Nations scientists state that 150-200 species are going extinct every twenty-four hours.

The surge in a few species is at the expense of others, and the overwhelming trend is a reduction and homogenization of species. The homogenization of the American landscape I’ve witnessed during my lifetime—a relentless propagation of Walmarts, McDonald’s, suburban cookie cutter developments, etc.—unfortunately parallels a similar process in the natural world.

In short, we are witnessing an environmental Holocaust that is caused solely by human beings. (Unlike the last mass extinction 65 million years ago, which erased the dinosaurs, there have been no asteroid impacts or massive volcanic activity.) I intended Plenty, as an eco-epic, to investigate this Holocaust and its relationship to the actual Holocaust.

As I mentioned before, I grew up wandering among the woods surrounding Walden Pond—and swimming in Walden Pond. The majority of species Thoreau catalogued, and the majority of species I encountered as a child in his woods, are now extinct (I mentioned a few in the catalog at the end of the book).

While I wrote Plenty, I was influenced by many women poets who are not only artists, but also activists or environmentalists—especially Anne Waldman, Brenda Hillman, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Tracy K. Smith, Maxine Kumin, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Pattiann Rogers, and Aja Monet (there are dozens of others). But almost every day, I looked at a graphic novel called Climate Changed by the French author Philippe Squarzoni. It’s a masterpiece, and I wish it were getting more attention. In one of the book’s panels, people are standing with their backs turned to the viewer, watching a massive wall of television screens. The screens show clichéd, Coca-Cola-style images of Santa Claus, industrialized production of wheat, various SUVs, and so on. It is night, and the only light is from the screens. Water is rising, flooding people up to their knees, but they don’t notice—because the advertising is so compelling.

That is what I fear—we are so bombarded by media that we think a handful of extra bears, or a giant storm and resulting flood during a drought, are evidence that Nature is healing or immune–and we presume permission to have just one more Coca-Cola. Ironically, those extra bears and the huge storm/flood are evidence of anthropogenic climate change and our destruction of ecosystems, not a green light for continuing consumption.

Alex Dueben's work has appeared in The Paris Review, The Believer, The Poetry Foundation, The Comics Journal and many other publications. He is working on his first novel. More from this author →