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Transom:
You composed these poems with the help of a chatbot you’d programmed with language from the autobiography of Davy Crockett, your ancestor. What led you to this process? What surprised you most about the poems that arose from this process?

Diamond:
While at Purdue I met a couple poets (shout outs to Chad and Eric) who would use computer programs, like Gnoetry, to create poems composed of language from existing texts. I knew I wanted to mine Crockett's autobiography in a similar way, but I didn’t have a clear idea how or what I was going to do with that language. I started programming the chatbot (a computer program designed to simulate human conversation) thinking, naively, that I might resurrect my famous ancestor from the dead, or at least create an AI that could convincingly dispense some frontier wisdom and humor. What I got instead was less exciting but infinitely more useful to me—a poetry line generator. The first two dozen poems or so were composed collaboratively with the chatbot (which I named “crockbot”). I would pick a line from the source text, type it into the bot, and the bot would reply with another line from the autobiography. If the product of one of these conversations was something less than a good poem, I would scrap it and start over. As I grew more comfortable with the language and the form these poems took on, the chatbot became less and less important, and in revising the manuscript I left the bot out entirely.

What was most surprising about this process was how seamlessly some of those early poems came together. The second poem I wrote with crockbot is still in the final manuscript, virtually unchanged from the day it was hatched. I call these “spooky poems.” On days I wrote a spooky poem, I’d feel like a boss-level necromancer. Other days I felt like IT support.

Transom:
Structurally, these poems hearken back to the sonnet, that classical form of asymmetrical thinking-while-feeling. What is the relationship between thinking and feeling in this project? Does it make sense to ask such a question, given the semi-mechanical nature of their composition?

Diamond:
Ultimately, my “semi-mechanical” process is an interesting but minor footnote in how these poems got made. The first poem I wrote with crockbot sort of serendipitously fit into this fourteen-line container with a loose pentameter. The poems that are the most sonnet-like borrow the Shakespearean turn in the final couplet and use that moment to inject aphorism or epiphany or anti-epiphany in a way that (I hope) deepens or undermines the reader’s understanding of what happens to Crockett in a given poem. And this deepening and undermining, validating and critiquing is a reflection of the competing ways I was feeling and thinking about my folk hero ancestor and his particular brand of frontier masculinity. On the one hand, I have this tendency to celebrate what a badass he was and that he lived a simpler life, closer to the sources of his food and always and intimately connected to nature and wilderness. On the other hand, I wanted to use Crockett’s language to critique and revise his own racism, misogyny, and violence. My hope is that the form makes room for Crockett, myself, and the reader to exist, think, and feel at the intersection of these things. I also think the poems will convince more people to live on farms.

Transom:
“What could have induced me to think I might / take up fiddling at a time of such peril?” asks this speaker, presumably channeling Crockett’s self-exploration from his autobiography. Is this a question that resonates, for you, as a young poet in 21st century America?

Diamond:
Another of the poems from this series ends “I’d sooner leave / the poet with you, reader, and such like / foolish stuff, and do something important.” I guess this is my answer to the “can poetry matter” question. Still, a big concern for me in writing these poems was that they be accessible to an audience beyond the poetry community. I wanted to write a book my grandfather would read if he could see well enough to read a book. Right now there’s a surplus of young poets, and most of us are academics, writing poems for the rather insulated community of fellow academic-poets. I’m not necessarily against this kind of poetry—I am, after all, an indebted member of that community—but its preponderance. After hearing some of the Crockett poems read aloud, a friend of mine told me she was going to buy the book as a birthday present for her father, who, like most red-blooded Americans probably hadn’t read a poem since high school. For my money, praise doesn’t come higher than that. So, poets, if these poems don’t strike your fancy, just remember, I wrote them for your dads.