Poems for Occasions

People turn to poetry in times of strong emotions. Sadly this occasion was a funeral. The poem wouldn’t have won any poetry competitions but it was appropriate, completely suitable for the occasion and a celebration of someone’s life, written so the person it was about was completely recognisable to everyone at the service. That was some feat given that the audience included life-long friends, relatives and community members as well as colleagues, some of whom had known her over a couple of decades, some for a few months. On its own terms, it was a wonderful poem.

A poet could have been asked to have written the poem, but the poet wouldn’t have been as familiar with the subject and would have to start from second hand information. If there had been time for the poet to interview family, friends, and colleagues and draw on photographs, needlework and other crafts done by the subject, would the poet still have been able to encapsulate the person so recognisably and accessibly?

This question lies at the heart of a poet writing about news events, trying to capture personal stories into a poem whilst using second hand sources. The internet does make it easier to track information, to read personal blogs or social media comments, to see maps and street views, to get the feeling for being there even whilst sitting in at a familiar desk and only journeying as far as the coffee pot. But can it replace direct personal experience?

Probably not completely. But compassion and empathy can enable a writer to place themselves inside someone else’s story and transform it into a poem. Everyone might have a story in them, but not everyone can write it. Distilling a story into a poem may mean leaving some facts out or emphasising others to make the poem work and tell and overall truth rather than focusing on making every finite detail true, but it still can be an effective way of bringing a story to life. Poets shouldn’t shy away from telling others’ stories or avoid topics because they weren’t there to witness it first hand, but should respect their sources and be truthful rather than sensational.

A poem isn’t a diary or reportage, it has to find a new way of telling a story that millions may have already seen on the news. The ease of finding source material also makes the poet’s job more difficult because those details are available just as easily to the poem’s potential readers. That’s the challenge that separates poets from those who like to think they can write: it’s easy to look at a photograph and describe it, harder to look at the photograph’s context and implications and see beyond the photograph’s borders. The real work lies in reading and re-reading sources, thinking over and understanding the stories being read and transforming that source material into a poem.

But there also are occasions where a poet has to step back and allow people to tell their stories in their own words, even if the result feels clumsy or incorporates clichés. Because on some occasions, the story matters more than the form it takes. That’s why the poem read at the funeral I recently attended was better than anything I could have written for that occasion.

“A Force that Takes” Edward Ragg (Cinnamon Press) – Poetry Review

A Force that takes Edward Ragg book cover

Edward Ragg’s default style is a spare, three short lines in each stanza with use of enjambment to move the reader onto the next line or idea. It’s not his only approach, but seems to be the one where he’s most comfortable. The advantage of this approach is that it gives him space to advance an idea and then think around it and/or give the reader space to think, while the enjambment moves the poem forward. The title poem thinks around the theme of comprehension:

“Each poem has its drama,
whether minuscule or minute,
wherein one voice

or another, the reader
at its table, the paper-weight
and impressing heel

become a force that takes.
The intellectuals and the merchants,
the currency between them.

Theirs is a larger drama
touching the miniscule,
or forced from there,

not prehensile, but feeding,
multiplying, digesting,
like the autolysis of yeast.

One has felt the force
of the offices and shipyards
and sheet metal,

another scorched words at a
study wall, the fury between
them, as a force that takes.

What I have in mind is
your comprehending touch,
waltz of a woman’s hips,

that if the poem has
comprehended anything
it has told us, in so many

words, this is the force
that runs through it, this is
the minuscule we comprehend.”

The poem explores how a reader brings their own baggage and instincts to a poem, taking the relatively small focus of a poem and expanding it into a bigger idea depending on their interpretation and understanding of the poem’s words. This also places a limitation on the poem as the reader restricts their reading to their own interpretation and understanding, potentially closing discussion to another reader’s interpretation. Or creating an argument in a situation where there is no one correct answer: the poem is open to whichever understanding the reader has. It sets the philosophical tone of many of the poems. It’s also difficult to quote extracts from these poems because they present an intact theory arrived at organically and the thread of understanding can get lost if a reader focuses on only one stanza. Their strength lies in their use of a plain vocabulary: Edward Ragg’s intention is to provoke thought in the reader and engage debate. He doesn’t intend to baffle with jargon or multi-syllabic words, an approach which can send a reader to reference books and search engines and the suspicion that the choice of obscure words was deliberate to shift the burden of work to the reader, a little like a pedagogue patronising a student rather than a poet to a reader.

“The Meaning of Failure” considers the necessity of failure to learning and ends:

“If all argument ends
in death, the argument ends.
Yet its very terms

as from a child’s world,
if they will have one, is
of argument without end.

Success is so inessential
and failure a condition
in which we may begin

to make again a world,
as when you pour the tea,
you kiss my cheek,

you walk from room
to room moving in a kind
of triumph barely seen.”

Edward Ragg grew up in England and moved to Beijing in 2007. Some of the poems mark the transition from being a foreigner, hesitant in a new language and customs to settling in and making Beijing home. “Chongwenmen Market” finishes

“I intone in snail Mandarin the prices of eggs,
pork belly, mutton, counting change in the abacus
of a new speech and would like to say more:
something about the colours of the aubergines,
the less recognised fruits, the tastes of them.”

The last line recognises the irony of the fruits being less recognised to the Englishman not the stall holder and the regret at wanting to try what to the speaker are new experiences but frustrated by an inability to find the words to ask. There’s a beautiful tenderness in “For the Love of,”

“and yet the woman I love,
her Chinese hair now bending
under the cooker hood

has made me forget winter,
the month of May, the willow
trees bending the water’s way.”

Edward Ragg manages to combine the philosophical with personal observations without becoming didactic by a careful choice words aimed at engaging the reader. His is an assured, undramatic voice that allows his poems to speak for themselves. “A Force that Takes” is available from Cinnamon Press.

“Beyond Wings” Alison Lock (Indigo Dreams Publishing) – poetry review

Beyond Wings Alison Lock book coverAlison Lock paints with words, using nature to explore an inner world. In “Kingfisher – upriver from Pulteney Bridge” a tour guide can’t hold attention from “the tip of a peacock’s feather that now/ adorns a tiny bird in a dull tree.” She experiments with form: there are haibun, verbal mirror poems and also prose poems often ending in a short, centred final stanza, e.g. “Playground” (complete poem):

“As we drive past the park, I see children on swings, their legs kicking out, sending them higher and higher, a boy turning a roundabout, whizzing, faster and faster as a girl watches. I see a single tree, leafless branches like unsheathed bones, bending towards them in a half embrace. It is as if the sap has stopped and the tree is shunned, abandoned by the fertile rush of leaf and seed and pod and bud and all the other bursting things like meadow grass and hedge. The cries and shouts and delights from the playground echo, becoming smaller and smaller, until the park, this moment in time, has gone, out of sight, beyond the quarter light.

fledglings
not knowing
the sky is endless”

The familiar image of children in a playground very much in the spring of their lives compared with the wintered tree is transformed by the image of the shunned tree and the children’s lack of knowledge of their potential. The abandoned tree also suggests that knowledge brings responsibility which, passed on too early, will diminish their childhood.

“fugue” is about starlings but also could be a metaphor:

“humming
on harp wires
rows of late leavers
starlings on a stave
awaiting the fulcrum
of a fickle tide
tip-to-tipping
for the fugue”

The references to “harp wires” and “stave” clearly point to the musical definition of fugue as a short melody introduced and then taken up by other instruments as the starlings wait for a leader to lead the flock into the air. They behave like any group of people who know what they have to do but are hesitantly hanging back not wanting to be first and waiting for someone to signal when to start.

Grief is handled with sensitivity, in “Joining up the dots”

“I see the tension in her arm,
folding in flour, milk, tears,
while my cutter is making
the shape of a star.

At night we look up to the loved ones,
as they join up the dots,
sketching their ploughs
and bears and dragons until –

Up there!
she points to the new arrival,
the one that pulls on the thread – still attached to our hearts.”

The human condition is firmly linked to nature, which, closely observed, can offer us lessons in dealing with obstacles and problems. Alison Lock shows a knowledge of words worn lightly, choosing familiar vocabulary to introduce and communicate ideas whilst also being mindful of the potential interpretations of each word chosen.

“Beyond Wings” is available from Indigo Dreams Publishing.

“A Roomful of Machines” Kristine Ong Muslim (ELJ Publications) – Poetry Review

A Roomful of Machines Kristine Ong MuslimThe newly released (July 2015) edition of “A Roomful of Machines” contains ten new poems that were not in the first edition. Both editions encourage readers to look at objects, whether inanimate or working, or, in some cases, body parts, such as a diseased lung, and see them from a different viewpoint. The poems, including some prose poems, have a pared-down, forensic feel to them. In “Dissection of Painted Things,” life is both bestowed and taken away.

“When nobody is looking, they twitch
their porcelain ears and open their
glass lips in preparation for speech.
Soon, he will scalpel their shiny torsos apart
then sketch the Y-incision for the damned.
How dark they were underneath
those colors. How bloodlessly calm.”

Readers don’t know who “he” is but see that in dissecting the painted things, he takes the life from them. Being inanimate, they have to submit but his actions have exposed their dark, calm core, confirming how different these things are from him. That “bloodlessly” has an air of menace but the menace belongs to him for inflicting violence on delicate, harmless objects. Although passive, the objects illustrate a side to him that they suggest usually remains hidden. The sinister feel is picked up again in “Closets”

“I pluck something shapeless and wrinkly
out of your sordid cache of shirts.
It is a tiny packet of darkness
snagged by the wire hangers.

Reflecting facets of the deadest lights,
the little blackness melts the flesh
of my palm down to where the veins are
entangled in a maze. I try to wash away

the spreading mark, but it festers to a sore.
That’s how badly it wants a body to invade.
It burns through the veins and leaks inky pus,
rendering my homemade stigmata complete.”

It suggests that secrets are hung along with the shirts. Once a secret is known, it cannot be unknown so it marks the narrator with a stigmata. As in “Dissection of Painted Things” the action imposed on the inanimate object, cannot be reversed so the action prompts a permanent change in the relationship between the person and object. “Closets” could also be viewed as being a illustration of a relationship where one partner discovers a secret or some baggage from their partner’s past that forces a permanent change in how that relationship is viewed. It’s left to the reader to interpret whether the relationship will survive. Another relationship is analysed in “The Fan”

“From the couch, she reaches out,
tries to take his hand. They are only
separated by a television screen.
The remote control has been forgotten
on the coffee table. An opened packet
of greasy chips is a silvery nest.
The overdue bills are unfurling
where the whirling electric fan
hits them. Soup is being reheated.
After the commercials, he will
look at her straight in the eyes,
and she will believe him.”

How many readers want to urge her to run for the hills knowing that the bills won’t be paid and her life will be reduced to cheap, unnourishing junk food and scraps of affection he won’t willingly give? That’s the strength of these poems, the details are allowed to accumulate into a picture that guides the reader into seeing what the poet wants the reader to know. Happier memories have been left behind in “Death of a House”

“Inside the child’s bedroom, the plastic
action figures wobble, struggling
to come back to life. Unraveling the house,
I discover dust under the rug. The dust flecks
come in all colors—those miniature chimeras
of happiness—with spools of hunger in between.
I carve out the hunger, inhale what it gives off.
I hear a roar out of the rubble of the dying house.”

Kristine Ong Muslim keeps her language simple, drawing the reader in to what on the surface is a familiar tableau but, as images are layered, readers are invited to see something familiar in a new light. The machines cannot speak but they can show and reflect character. They can conceal or reveal secrets and hidden depths and persuade a reader to care about them.

“Roomful of Machines” is available from ELJ Publications.

How quickly can you expect a review?

I get it: you’re eager for the affirmation of a good review, or at least a not-bad review. But there’s silence. You know your publisher has sent out review copies but the magazines haven’t published them yet. You begin approaching bloggers. How long can it take?

Reviews of live events, such as readings, generally appear quickly because a readership’s not going to be interested in reading a review of an event that happened six months ago and now seems a distant memory. Reviews of purchasable items such as books or downloads don’t have that urgency so long as the book is still available for purchase.

No matter how eager you are, you don’t want reviews of your book to appear all at once. Several reviews appearing gradually over time are better. Each time a review appears, it reminds potential buyers your book is available. Not everyone rushes out to buy a copy after the first review appears, so reminders are better.

A key factor in when reviews appear is the fact that, in order to write a review, a reviewer actually has to have time to read the book. You know your poetry book inside out but a reviewer will be reading it for the first time. A slow, considered review is preferable to a rush job that doesn’t do your book justice. With experience, it is possible to read a poetry book in a couple of hours and draft a review, however that’s not going to be a very good review. Poems need to be thought about, re-read and read aloud. A first impression isn’t always the right impression.

Reviewers also have lives and other commitments. Your book is hugely important to you but to a reviewer, it’s another item on the to-do list and will not get priority over caring responsibilities, the job that pays the bills, their own poetry (most poetry reviewers are also poets) and the fact that they have a long-anticipated holiday coming up.

Magazine deadlines and available space play a part too. A review may be held over for a subsequent issue. Sometimes I schedule blog posts in advance so reviews have to wait their turn. I can receive an electronic copy of a book the day I’ve agreed to review it, but postal copies take time to arrive. Sometimes the delays are with the postal service. Sometimes publishers only do their post at set times so they organise and prioritise their own tasks so review copies may have to sit and wait before they can be posted.

I prefer to turn reviews around quickly, where I can. I like to read a book within a day of it turning up (whether by post or download). I make notes as I am reading. I might draft my review from the notes or I might read the book again before writing my draft. Once I have a draft review, I will put it aside and read the book again. Each book I review is read at least twice. Then I will read my draft review to check I’ve covered everything I want to say. I will do any necessary editing. I might put it aside for a final check through depending on how much editing I’ve done. When I’m happy that I’ve said all I want to say and I then do a format edit. I review for three different magazines and my blog so I check my review is in the right format for the publication and check the word count. Then I’ll sent to the relevant magazine or schedule it for my blog.

Writing a review takes at least a week. I have to review around other commitments. If a book takes a week to arrive, that’s two weeks for me to write my review. This assumes that when the book arrived, I didn’t have any other reviews to write (books for review are put in order of arrival so if I already have four books to review, yours will be the fifth. There’s no queue-jumping.) Other commitments may take over and give me less time to review.

If your book took a week to arrive, it was fifth in queue and I had a busy week of commitments, then it could be six weeks before I can even look at your book. That would actually be an extremely rare occurrence. For the magazines I review for, if I couldn’t turn around reviews within a month I would warn the editors. When people commission individual reviews, I tell them how long it will take and if I already have books in the review queue.

Generally I won’t commit to review something if I know it will take longer than a month. But I can’t see into the future and can’t guarantee a quick turnaround.

It’s taken me nearly 800 words to say “Don’t expect a quick review.” No matter how much you want that affirmation for your collection of poetry, you don’t want book reviews to appear quickly.

Reasons Poetry Manuscripts get Rejected

Poetry publishers can’t just publish poetry they love. Poetry publishing is a business and no business can afford to run at a loss. When you send your manuscript to a publisher, they’re not just looking at how wonderful the poetry is, but also considering if it might make a loss. Common reasons for rejections are:

Lack of a Track Record

Most buyers of poetry books are other poets. Other poets tend to buy books by poets they’ve heard of, had recommended to them or poets they’ve seen at a reading or festival. If you haven’t tried to get individual poems published in poetry magazines, haven’t tried competitions or haven’t given any readings, a publisher will know you lack a readership.

Poetry does not sell

At least it doesn’t sell in large numbers overnight. Poetry books do sell over a long period to people who attend readings and see the poet’s name in magazines. To take on the commitment to publish a poetry book, the publisher needs to love the poems and be convinced there’s an audience to buy the book.

Lack of Marketing Experience

Poetry publishers don’t have much in the way of a marketing budget. Poets need to be able to help market their books. If you submit a poetry manuscript, it’s always worth mentioning whether you’ve done any readings, are a member of writers’ groups, are on social media and whether you participate in workshops. You don’t need to do all these things – getting social media wrong can backfire – but you do need to know which marketing channels can work for you and be able to show you’ve thought about marketing.

Presentation

A poetry collection isn’t simply a collection of poems the poet thinks are their best pulled together in a book. Usually the poems are grouped together around a theme or themes, albeit loosely, and organised so that poems that work together appear together. There is room for experimental or not yet published poems. There isn’t room for ‘fillers’, less polished poems that fit into the theme but whose main job is to fill out the pages. Poems whose theme is too similar to the preceding poem or that offer the same perspective of a subject need to be thinned out too (and not merely shuffled so they appear later in a collection). Collections that only offer previously published poems can be as boring as ‘greatest hits’ albums, particularly for reviewers who have generally seen the poems in their original publications. A collection is a body of work, not the sum of individual poems.

Failure to stick to the publisher’s guidelines

Publishers don’t produce guidelines because they happened to have a bit of free time on a Friday afternoon. Poets who don’t follow guidelines will find their work returned, unread.

Failure to follow guidelines marks a poet as difficult to work with. If a poet can’t follow guidelines, it suggests that poet won’t be happy about working with a publisher. A publisher isn’t necessarily looking for a poet who automatically says ‘yes’ to every change they suggest, but they don’t have time to deal with a poet with an obstructive attitude.

The Poet gives up

Poetry’s a tough market with periodic peaks and troughs. Publishers tend to give priority to poets they’ve already published, which can make it feel as if doors are closed to new poets. You need to find the publisher who is going to love your work, put together the best version of your manuscript that you can and ensure it lands on the right publisher’s desk at the right time. There’s an element of luck but a lot of it comes down to research and persistence.

That doesn’t mean stalking your desired publisher or firing off variants of your manuscript every other month until you’ve ground them into an acceptance. It does mean reading the replies you get. If a publisher asks to see more work or wants you to send poems one to ten back but with different poems eleven to fifteen, do it. Publishers aren’t going to invite you to send more work at a future date unless they’re committed to reading and considering the work they’ve invited you to send. Turning down that invitation will leave you unpublished.

Read poetry books to find out which publishers prefer poetry like yours and/or publish poets like you. Check out publishers’ websites and read their guidelines. Double check your submission conforms to the guidelines and you’re sending it during the submissions window (if there is one). Have a plan B. Publisher A may love it but may not be able to publish it right now. Publisher B might feel it’s not quite right for them. Publisher C might like your poems but they published a book on that theme last month. Publisher D might like some of the poems but not others and want you to send again in light of their comments. Publisher E may not take unsolicited manuscripts. Publisher F would have loved it and snapped it up but you gave up at E so publisher F never saw it.

Your submission is looking dog-eared and tired. It’s hard work, but you need to tailor your submission for each publisher. If you submit a tatty, much-read manuscript with a form cover letter, the publisher will know they weren’t your first choice so will give priority to poets who did make them their first choice. If a poet can’t sum up the enthusiasm to make a professional submission, how much enthusiasm will they have to market the book if the publisher goes ahead?

The Poet thinks they’re doing the publisher a favour

  • A post-graduate degree in creative writing does not give you the right to be published.
  • A lengthy list of publishing credits and a few competition successes does not give you the right to be published.
  • Being able to book a slot at a major literary festival to do a reading does not give you the right to be published.
  • Having a previous collection or ten does not give you the right to be published.
  • Producing a glowing blurb and review from an established, award-winning poet does not give you the right to be published.
  • Having thousands of followers on social media and contacts that will get your book into local bookstores does not give you the right to be published.

Only the publisher can decide what they want to publish. They have every right to say no.

Publishers aren’t just looking for fantastic poetry that they love, they are also looking to publish books that sell. Poetry doesn’t sell by itself, it also needs a poet who can demonstrate a professional working attitude and can help with marketing. The rejection of your manuscript may actually have nothing to do with the quality of your poetry.

Film Poems

Word! earlier this month featured film poems (this is not a regular occurrence). Essentially the poem is read and displayed line by line with relevant images shown as a slide show. The advantage is that a poetry reader can see the words, hear them read and, if the images have been chosen with care and sensitivity, they enhance the poem, which, for the most part is what happened at Word!

They can be made fairly cheaply if you have a digital video camera which can record or editing software which allows you to add a sound file during the edit. The films can be made either by making a series of shots or in one take if you have presentation software from which you can record a slideshow.

There are downsides though:

Selection of Images

Here the poet runs into the same problem as film adaptions of novels or stories. When reading from a page, a reader creates the visual images to accompany the text in their own mind informed by their own imagination and experience as well as the words on page. If the reader then sees images chosen by someone else (even if that someone else is the poet), they may not coincide with the images the reader created.

The quality of the images matter too. This isn’t about resolution or the quality of the camera or the monitor the film gets viewed on. It’s about where the images are sourced. Stock images may not specific enough to the poem or a great image for line two may not sit so well with the images used for lines one and three. The images also need to work with the text to complement or provide a contrast. Spare pen and ink images could work well with dense, concentrated text. Sparse text might work better with deep, resonant images. Poets who are also visual artists have an advantage here. I hope I don’t have to remind readers that copyright applies to images as well as poems.

The poet also has to be aware how much the chosen images funnel or guide the reader in interpreting your poem. Reading off a page or in hearing the words read, the reader creates their own images. However, in seeing a film poem, the reader is directed by the images selected to accompany the poem. If the reader has already seen the poem on a page or heard the poem, and the film images don’t coincide with their created images, the reader may disengage. Even if the reader hasn’t seen the poem before, the images may not correspond with their reading of the poem.

Images and Text

There needs to be sufficient contrast between the text and images for the text to be readable. Where the images are busy or multi-coloured, it may be best to have a plain coloured box for the text. If you have grayscale or black and white images and black text, consider using a separator (a box or horizontal/vertical line) so the distinction between text and images is clear.

Where the text is used either on top of or as part of the image, make sure the text doesn’t obscure a key part of the image and, likewise, ensure the image doesn’t obscure the text.

The images do not replace the text so the text needs to be of sufficient size not only to read but so the balance between text and images is kept.

Sound

This isn’t about the mechanics of recording or the quality of the sound (which I’m not qualified to comment on) but rather how the listener will hear the reading alongside reading the poem and seeing the images.

The poet has one job: reading the poem. The reader has two: listening to the poem and processing the accompanying image. Frame each line/image with a pause to give the reader chance to catch-up. If you have detailed, multi-layered images your reader will need more time.

Think about the pacing of your reading. You poem may be about a sprint but if you try to gabble through a sonnet in less than thirty seconds, your reader won’t have time to catch what you’re saying and certainly won’t process your text and images at the same time. Aim for a reading pace slightly slower than normal and resist the temptation to speed up at the end of a line.

Add breathlessness as a sound effect after your poem rather than during your reading. In fact, it’s a good idea to keep reading and sound effects separate. Use sound effects as punctuation rather than trying to read over them. Some listeners find it difficult to differentiate between foreground and background noises and if the poet makes it difficult for the audience to hear, the audience will switch off.

Don’t act. Readings of poem where the poet has tried to act out the poem invariably sound hammy, corny and distracting. That doesn’t mean switching to a monotone either or ironing out an accent. Aim towards a narrative voice as if you are telling someone a story guided by the voice of the poem. Your marathon poem may start determined, slacken and become disillusioned halfway through and then pick up optimism towards the end with your finish line in sight.

Be aware of ‘noisy’ clothing. Jewellery can click, leather creak and buttons clash. Unintentional sound effects are distracting.

Don’t kiss the microphone, if you’re using one. You need to be reasonably close to the microphone but the microphone will pick up wheezes, sighs, throat clearances, whistles of breath, tongue clicks and lip smacks. None of these might be audible while you are recording, but they can be heard on playback and can drown out the words for an audience. This is why it’s never a good idea to skip rehearsals. You’re not just practicing reading the poem but also learning about the rhythm of the poem, the pace you’re comfortable reading at and where to breathe.

It might be possible to edit these vocal sounds out but it’s better not to have them in the first place. Aim to keep the microphone around 15 – 30cm from your mouth and point the microphone either below or above rather than directly in line with your mouth. This balances between avoiding picking up background room sounds and stopping proximity effect from making your voice sound muddy. Consider using a pop filter which will help reduce the popping sound caused by plosive consonants. Put your microphone on a mouse mat to cut down on reflective sound from hard surfaces. Before recording, check you’re comfortable with the position of the microphone and that you’re not hunched over it so you can still take deep breaths.

Whether you’re using a microphone or reading directly to a video camera, run a few rehearsals first. If you’re not reading from memory, check you can see the text you’re reading from and you can read without creating unnecessarily noise such as rustling papers or a squeak of a finger scrolling up a screen. You may not be able to hear these, but the microphone will pick them up. It may be preferable to record one image and line at a time and connect them at the editing stage rather than doing the whole poem in one take.

Quality Poems

The medium should not get the better of the message. A good spoken word performance might temporarily lift a mediocre poem just as an interesting slide show of images might enhance a mediocre poem. But, in both cases, once the text of the poem is separated from the images and/or the performance, it will fall flat if the poem’s not good enough.

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