Those Sublime Tiny Details: A Q&A with Jynne Dilling Martin

By Whitney DeVos

In her debut collection WE MAMMALS IN HOSPITABLE TIMES, Jynne Dilling Martin uses poetry to explore life's most difficult questions, making the argument that speculation through art is just as valid as science. "No doctor has a single lab result explaining where we proceed after earth," she tells us in "Some Important Clarifications." In MAMMALS, the precision of an eye sharpened by both empirical observation and the poetic image is coupled with a deft and expansive imagination, one that allows Dilling Martin to range across and collapse a wide variety of scopes, scales, and terrains from macro (universes) to the microscopic (cyanobacteria) and everywhere in between, especially, of course, our home planet: Martin writes, "Earth is the third planet from the sun, and its center holds a billion nickels."

In 2013, Martin was a National Science Foundation artist-in-residence in Antarctica, a post once held by Werner Herzog. While in the midst of researchers and, of course, the antarctic sublime, Martin wrote much of MAMMALS, a book marked by its exuberant celebration of both fragile and hostile beauty, as well as "People, machines, the stars." What happens when all are yoked together, in poetry or in life? "When I think of What the Future Must Bring" imagines how future technological advancement could alter the certainty of human mortality. Yet the inevitablity of death is largely what allows us to derive significance from the transitory and fleeting experience of human life. Ultimately, the poet finds that meaning is best anchored, paradoxically, in the ephemerality of the most delicate moments: "Why not let this planet / and its people spin away. Choose to remember them faintly // and without affection, as characters from a supermarket paperback, / the footing but not the feeling of a dance you once performed."


Brazos Bookstore: Let's start with the title, which is a homophone: when one says "in hospitable" out loud, it's ambiguous as to whether one is saying "in hospitable" or "inhospitable"; its ultimately unclear whether the title is WE MAMMALS: INHOSPITABLE TIMES or WE MAMMALS IN HOSPITABLE TIMES. So, let's talk about both possibilities: what's hospitable about these times, for us mammals, and what's inhospitable?

Jynne Martin: This is a dark note to open on, but we are facing a terribly inhospitable moment for animals of all stripes. Hayden Carruth’s poem “Essay” expresses it head on: “This / has been the time of the finishing off of the animals. / They are going away - their fur and their wild eyes…”

What hospitality exists comes from the flourishes of kindness, beauty and generosity that still persist nonetheless: my brother’s backyard honeybee colonies, the pulsing glow of cyanobacteria, the remarkable scientists in Antarctica working with the wildlife there--animals that cannot migrate any further south, even as the planet rapidly warms.

BB: I'm interested in the tension between the meanings of the title, when it's pronounced orally, and the singular meaning demanded in visual, textual, linguistic representation. I'm wondering if, for you, seeing and hearing represent two different kinds of knowing. Science is of course based on empirical observation: the dominant form of seeing is the privileged over any of the other senses. What kind of possibilities might open up if we considered hearing or listening (or the other senses) rather than sight? Is that what poetry does?

JM: It’s what the most profound art does, isn’t it? For me, you are describing the music of Elizabeth Cotten, or the Caspar David Friedrich painting “Monk by the Sea,” or St John Perse’s ANABASIS. And poetry offers that aural playground which can be so stimulating. I think of those thick, luscious Gerard Manley Hopkins poems, or Wallace Stevens’s “Hymn from a Watermelon Pavilion.” A literal reading of that strange poem would verge on absurd--don’t ask me what the “plantain by your door” is--but it is one of my favorites and makes me shiver every time.

BB: What happens at the intersection between poetry and science? What compelled you to bring these two discourses into conversation?

JM: Poets and scientists share so much: a profound curiosity about the world, a voracious appetite to study its behaviors, unending awe at its secrets. Also we are introverted nerds. Scientists are just the ones who are much better at lab work and mathematics.

BB: I'd like to ask you a little bit about the book's formal qualities. It's written largely in tercets and, more noticeably, couplets. What was appealing about the couplet to you, and how did it provide the best stanzaic mode for organizing the book's content? Is MAMMALS a kind of love letter to the world and/or times?

JM: Much of my poetry (like my brain) is sprawling, exuberant, a little manic, full of leaps; the couplet is a gift from the structuring gods. It puts the screws on that loose energy and creates order, or at least the illusion of order. Disparate images get coupled, associative logic gets structured into an argument, and the ample white space provides a breather amid the long lines.

BB: Your long lines remind me of both Whitman and Marianne Moore, who you cite at the back of the book. Who else is included in your own poetic genealogy, and/or genotype?

JM: Yes, I love poets of abundance and catalogues--St John Perse, too. I also adore funny poets: Stephen Crane, Frank O’Hara, Mary Ruefle. But even more than other poets, I draw from the language, arguments, and details of eclectic reference texts, like the 1910 Smithsonian report, or an 1800's catalogue of New York State asylum life, or the wonderful ANATOMY OF MELANCHOLY by Robert Burton.

BB: Could you tell us a bit about your time in Antarctica? What was it like to write poetry in such a landscape? Is Antarctica as bleak and disaster-filled "in real life" as it is in the cultural imagination? How did you do to prepare to for your trip, and what were you reading while you were there?

JM: Antarctica is anything but bleak! It’s like a dazzling nirvana of rainbow light, punctuated by an enormous active volcano, swooping white petrels, and swiftly shifting patterns of ice. The light and weather changes constantly, stretches seemingly into infinity, and is mesmerizing to watch. It looks closer to outer space than something of our own earth. It was such an expansive feeling, that I found to be very stimulating. I had an incredibly productive time writing, helped by immersing myself in polar diaries and journals while down there. The McMurdo Station library proved to be an extraordinary resource, filled with explorer accounts of their diet, cold, desperations and discoveries: the number of times an Eskimo woman must chew reindeer skin until it becomes the perfect texture to make a finnesko. And it was those sublime tiny details–three weeks of a woman chewing a piece of reindeer skin just to sew a single boot, for a long-dead polar explorer–in the face of an enormous Antarctica landscape that I found so staggering and so inspiring.

Whitney DeVos received her MFA in poetry from the University of Arizona. She is currently pursuing a PhD in experimental poetry and poetics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she also teaches courses in literature and creative writing. In between long silences, she writes about death, light, and the Anthropocene. She has never been to Antarctica.

We Mammals in Hospitable Times Cover Image
ISBN: 9780887485961
Availability: Backordered
Published: Carnegie-Mellon University Press - February 3rd, 2015

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