book publishing

Jynne Dilling Martin Will Go to the Ends of the Earth for Literature

As Riverhead’s publicity director, she has traveled all over the country to promote her authors’ books. But a fellowship in Antarctica helped the poet find a place for her own work.

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Poet Jynne Dilling Martin had experienced freezing temperatures growing up in Cleveland. But nothing like this. She was in huddled in a snow cave in Antarctica, the sun ever-present in the sky. The hours stretched before her in an interminable fashion. She had no watch, and no idea of how much longer she would have to wait. Earlier, she had shoveled out her own shelter in the ice shelf. But after the intense exertion, her body started to cool off. Even hand warmers didn’t help. Whenever she reached for one, a piece of the cave would melt and she was intensely, intensely cold. And then the ultimate humility and frustration:

“When I had to pee, it was a 20-minute ordeal of stripping off layers and crawling to my cave entrance hole so I could stand up, and between the exhaustion and clumsiness of wearing so much gear, I accidentally missed my pee bottle and splattered pee on the fleece parka I was using as a pillow.”

It is the last place on Earth that many people expect to end up. But for Martin, who runs the publicity department for Riverhead Books, Antarctica was an intended destination—and a geographical wonder that would seep into many of her poems. The 37-year-old poet spent six weeks there at the end of 2013, having been selected for the prestigious Antarctic Artists and Writers Program, part of the National Science Foundation.

“I’ve always loved science and poetry and the different scientific disciplines, and the language of them and the ways they have for understanding the world around us. And I like appropriating that and stealing their discourse and then making it weirder, or make it apply to things that it wasn’t actually meant to apply to,” Martin says. “And then separately, I’ve always loved Antarctica. So to get to shadow the scientists of Antarctica was the pinnacle of all possible dreams come true.”

There has long been this notion—or is it a myth?—that writing requires a life of solitude, away from the daily grind, in order to have the necessary introspection. So how does Martin—who has a job where she’s constantly surrounded by people, and especially other writers, who are presumably competitors (though they are predominantly novelists, essayists, historians, and memoirists, and not poets)—do it? Because Martin is challenged on a daily, even minute-to-minute basis, helming publicity campaigns at one of the most respected literary imprints at Penguin Random House. By day, she promotes books and organizes book tours for some of the biggest literary authors working today, like Junot Díaz, Meg Wolitzer, Masha Gessen, and Chang-rae Lee. How she manages to excel at her job while keep it from distracting her from her writing is a testament to her dedication.

“I always keep a Moleskine with me,” Martin told me. “I accumulate text and ideas and quotes and things that just rub me in an interesting way. So even if a month or two months or more passes before I really sit down and have a long, dedicated space to write in, I’ve been collecting and it’s been floating somewhere on some subterranean level in my brain.”

Poetry drew Martin in from a young age. She says she started writing poems as early as the first grade, and jokes that “somewhere a former high-school boyfriend has a trove that I’m sure he can sell on eBay and humiliate or blackmail me with.” But it wasn’t until her undergraduate years at the University of Virginia, where she studied with Charles Wright and Rita Dove, that she really approached the form in a serious way. Poetry transformed from something she was doing for herself to “feeling like there was some kind of message” for an audience.

“Charles Wright especially helped stretch me in more associative directions and most importantly of all made me a deeper and wider reader,” Martin says. “Among other things, he introduced me to the writing of great Chinese poets like Li Po and Tu Fu, and the single greatest volume of poetry anyone can own, Japanese Death Poems.”

After college, she did what most aspiring writers do: She moved to New York City, without a job lined up.  Martin lived off of savings and credit cards, and lived in the Glendale section of Queens, where she had to take a bus to get to the subway. She spent her unemployed Sundays scanning the job listings in the New York Times, and faxing résumés.

Martin landed her first job in publicity at Tor/Forge Books before moving houses, first to Simon & Schuster and then Random House, where she was the Associate Director of Publicity. She enrolled in the low-residency program at Warren Wilson for her MFA, and did this while working full-time. This required using her vacation days to attend ten-day residencies in summer and winter. Martin managed to pull off successful publicity campaigns during her workday, go to yoga—another great passion—and then return to her office, where she’d write for three to four hours a night.

“Poetry is my way of processing the world and my emotions and my experiences and the sort of sensory overwhelm that I feel sometimes. And writing and being in that space of writing gives me something that nothing else gives me.”

Being a full-time student and a full-time employee is enough to exhaust anyone, even make a person go mad, but Martin was determined to realize her dream as a writer, even as she had a successful career as a publicist.

“It was incredibly hard. My work in book publishing is already a more than full-time job that bleeds into all of my evenings and weekends. So to carve out time for my MFA work was a daily challenge,” Martin says. “I have vivid memories of being on book tour with Jane Fonda, and putting her to bed in Washington D.C. after a long day of interviews and events, then going to my own hotel room to complete a 20-page thesis about Marianne Moore, due the next day.”  

Becky Saletan, Vice-President and Editorial Director of Riverhead Books, says Martin has “completely reimagined” publicity and made it into a creative act. “How has she done all this—and also become an extraordinarily accomplished poet, plus yoga teacher, world traveler, marathoner, and general appreciator of all that is beautiful, essential, and absurd in the world—I have no idea, even though I have come to know her as a friend and family member (Martin, who just married translator Louie Saletan, is Becky’s sister-in-law), as well as a colleague. Partly it’s a keenly honed sense of priority, of what is deserving of attention and time. And it’s also a highly developed clarity—she knows her own mind, and the leap from stimulus to idea is very quick and very sure.”

Meg Wolitzer, one of her authors, agrees, adding, “Jynne is interested in so many things; she’s knowledgeable and curious and seriously talented, and also extremely good-natured and kind.” 

It took Martin 12 years to write enough poems for the book that would become We Mammals in Hospitable Times, which was published in February by Carnegie Mellon University Press. Twelve years in which she held so many other books by other writers in her hands. She managed to resist being jealous of her other authors. Martin finds that her day job motivates her. “I feel like I am the luckiest person in New York City,” she says. “I get to spend my days advocating for the work of some of the best living writers of our time – writers whose work has changed my life and books that I feel are so absolutely urgent and important for people to be reading. I get to be the one who helps these important and beautiful books find as wide a readership as possible. It doesn’t even feel like work—it is a life passion for me.”

Despite all of the knowledge Martin has of the publishing industry, nothing prepared her for getting to hold her book for the first time. “I was so happy, and happy partly because it has been over a decade of work. It’s been really, really gratifying and very emotional to actually have the book, to hold it. It’s here, it’s a book. It actually happened.” 

Her publisher Jerry Constanzo says that when one reads between 400 to 500 manuscripts over a month and a half, “the real thing announce themselves. Jynne’s manuscript spoke to me (and to our group of preliminary readers) in that way.”

But before it was even on bookstores shelves, the buzz was already building with an enviable amount of advance press. While she was in Antarctica and in the months thereafter, she wrote about her South Pole adventures for Slate and Glamour, landed on the cover of Poets and Writersand was the subject of features from print and online magazines as far ranging as Fast Company to New York magazine’s The Cut. That kind of press is rare for any debut writer. Rarer still for a poet. And a dream for a university press publisher.

Since the book’s release, Martin has been featured on NPR, and gotten rave reviews in the New York Times, and (full disclosure: I wrote that review), among many other places. The New York Times said of We Mammals in Hospitable Times that it’s “cheerily dark and full of the natural world—dark because it’s concerned with species destruction and environmental degradation, cheery because it’s so interested in what’s going on, in science, in weather, in species.”

She has created a name for herself: first as a tastemaker in the literary world, and now as someone whose own words are deeply revered by other readers. Poetry is what grounds her—and she finds it everywhere, in everything. Even something as dense as a scientific report. Are cosmic rays the birth cries or death gasps of matter? she writes in “The Effects of Earth’s Magnetic Poles on Free-Space Particle Flux.” That line came from a report she found in the library on the station in Antarctica.

Martin has traveled many miles for the sake of her own writing, but she’s willing to go just as far of a distance for her authors. She is the ultimate literary citizen and a poet who has found a huge audience of her own. During her book launch on a cold February night, so many people packed into the Brooklyn bookstore BookCourt that it was standing room only.

There’s a deep satisfaction in having a book of her own, but Martin enjoys her day job just as much as her writing.

“I feel a deep affinity for Riverhead’s mission of discovering and publishing diverse and unheard voices,” Martin says. “We’re doing what we can to cultivate and promote a literary landscape that is more diverse, more representative of our rich and complex world. It’s more a personal mission, and a privilege, than work. So I suspect I’ll be at Riverhead doing my idiosyncratic book campaigns until someday when they don’t want me anymore. Then I’ll move to Mexico City and write my poems.” 

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