Passwords Primeval Interview with Tony Leuzzi

Appeared in Passwords Primeval: 20 American Poets in their Own Words (American Readers Series) by Tony Leuzzi, BOA Editions, 2012.

Tony Leuzzi:
Days begins with a four-line poem from the eighteenth-century Japanese poet Kobayashi Issa and a single line from Walt Whitman, both cited on the same page. Can you explain ways in which your poems—in this book and in others—are influenced by these seemingly disparate sources? Put another way, do you see your own work as drawing on features from both of these poets?

Gary Young:
Issa’s haiku possesses much of what I admire in any poem: concision, clarity, and sentiment without sentimentality. These are certainly things I strive for in my own work. Issa’s haiku is from The Year of My Life, a book in haibun, a form that combines prose and haiku, and chronicles a year in the poet’s life. Days, besides being comprised of short prose poems that bear at least a passing resemblance to haiku (I conceived of them as long, one-lined poems) also takes place over the course of a year, and is organized by the passing seasons. Whitman’s long lines are one of many inspirations for my long-lined prose poems.

TL:
I see a definite connection between your work and the spare, imagist elements of Haiku; but there is a distinct formal difference between Whitman’s long-lined verse and your prose poems. What do you mean when you say “long-lined prose poem”? If you see each of your prose poems as one long line of verse, how does this conception influence your composition?

GY:
Whitman’s propulsive verse was one of the catalyzing agents that led me toward the notion of a “horizontal” poetry. Whitman’s preface to Leaves of Grass, and a good deal of his book Specimen Days, while written in prose, share more equivalence with his poetry than with his other prose works. Consider Whitman’s “Cavalry Crossing a Ford.” The poem is a single sentence, and its lines are spread extravagantly across the page. Although the line breaks are hardly arbitrary, the poem would lose little or nothing if it were set as prose. It might not be something of which he’d approve, but I’ve taken the democratic itinerary, the horizontal as opposed to the vertical trajectory of his poetry and translated, or appropriated it into the prose poem.

I can’t say that a conception of my verse as long, one-lined poems has had any particular effect upon my mode of composition, except insofar as any form will affect the ceremony of the poem as it’s fit into a given architecture. I suppose I’m more aware of grammar, syntax, tone and punctuation that I might otherwise be; those are your chief tools once you abandon the line.

TL:
You speak of Whitman’s democratic itinerary, his sense of the horizontal as opposed to the vertical trajectory of poetry. How does this notion of the horizontal relate to your work?

GY:
One of the things that provoked me to shift from lineated poems to prose poems was The Geography of Home, an artists’ book I created with Gene Holtan and Elizabeth Sanchez. I produced half of the prints, and they split the other half between them. The prints—woodcuts, engravings, collagraphs—dealt with the natural and domestic landscapes of our homes on the California central coast. I’m primarily a landscape artist. I’ve spent most of my summers in Wyoming since I was five, and I’ve had a couple of long artist’s residencies there. I know and love that particular landscape intimately: long horizons interrupted by little eruptions of trees and mountains. There’s something about those vistas. I love painting them, doing woodcuts of them. In any case, we had this book of relief prints. It was 24 inches wide; a very wide book. I wrote a text for it, a manifesto in praise of the domestic. I was afraid the text would be overwhelmed by all of the images, and didn’t know whether to place it in the front or in the back of the book as a block of text. Finally, we decided to print it on the back of the prints—and so the manifesto runs as a single line for 98 pages. Suddenly, a light bulb went off. I thought, “This is what I want my poems to do: begin, and move horizontally without interruption.” Since then, I have tried to rid my work of hierarchy. In lineated verse you really do fall through the poem, moving from top to bottom. I want readers to move from left to right, to walk along the poem rather than fall through it. I try to make my poems more democratic insofar as no single part of the poem is structurally more important than another. You don’t have enjambment or end stops artificially inflating the poem. The language, in prose, has to sit there nakedly. This is why it’s so difficult to write a good prose poem: there’s nowhere to hide.

TL:
I have read much verse that would be impoverished if it weren’t lineated. Oddly, your prose poems would be diminished if they were lineated as verse. Can you discuss why you turned to prose instead of verse, and how—in view of your work—the poems function best as prose?

GY:
I think the prose poem is the most rigorous poetic form. Consequently, if you can make your poem work in prose, you know you have something going. Ezra Pound’s injunctive that “Poetry should be at least as well written as prose” suggests that a prose poem should be held to an even higher standard. I believe that’s so. The prose poem is both supple and brazen, and it’s subversive insofar as it doesn’t look like a poem; the reader can be led to places he or she might ordinarily resist in a lined poem. My own attraction is personal and emotional. I want my poems to move horizontally rather than vertically, as I’ve said. I am drawn to the implausibility of the form itself, and to the humility it induces in me when I write.

TL:
A conspicuous feature of your work is its brevity. No single poem, for example, extends beyond a paragraph, and no paragraph reaches the midway mark of a page. Is brevity a conscious goal when you write? Do you, through a series of revisions, work to achieve it? Or is it the result of a more organic process by which you discover the poem as it is—a brief prose moment?

GY:
My primary aesthetic tool (and this is true of my writing, my printmaking and my typographic work) is elimination of the inessential. Concision, clarity and immediacy are what I’m after, and I can’t achieve that by filling my poems with fluff. Curiously, I’ve found that it’s easier to cut down a short poem than it is to cut down a long one. Each poem in my first book of prose poems, Days, began as a one- to three-page, single-spaced, typewritten draft, which I then edited to the poem’s final, abbreviated form. I’ve often thought that it would be interesting to go back and take those first drafts and expand them into short stories, but I’m too lazy for a project of that magnitude.

TL: Have you ever written your poems out in some lineated form first before recasting them into prose?

GY: I have written poems in prose and then broken the prose into lines, but I don’t believe I’ve ever recast a lined poem as prose. There was a prose poem in my first book, Hands, but not a one in my next book, The Dream of a Moral Life. My subsequent five books have all been collections of prose poems. The prose poem has become a habit, if not simply my natural inclination.

TL:
I appreciate that you do not place more than one poem per page, no matter how concise the poem is. This choice allows readers to see the ample white space on each page as part of the text itself.

GY:
Stéphane Mallarmé called that white space the “silence” around the poem. I spent two years hand-setting the type and printing D. J. Waldie’s translation of Mallarmé’s Un Coup de Dés. The book was never printed in Mallarmé’s lifetime. I used Mallarmé’s corrected proofs to design the book, and I became intimate with the text and with Mallarmé’s negotiations with blank space. Un Coup de Dés is a poetic masterpiece of radical typography and penetrating silences, in which the poem can be read across the gutter as well as down the page. Somewhere Mallarmé says that he didn’t violate the traditional uses of white space, he merely moved it around. In any case, my work as a fine printer has influenced my use of space (and silence) as much as anything.

TL:
Can you elaborate on the importance of white space/silence in terms of your texts?

GY:
If you believe, as I do, that every poem is a universe, an independent world, then the poem needs the relief of distance to establish itself. If all the poems in my books were run together as a single, long block of prose, it would be much more difficult to recognize the discreet ambitions of the individual utterances. Take this poem from my book, No Other Life:

I would live forever if I could, but not like this.

Or this one from my last book, Pleasure:

Hunting mushrooms under the pine trees, I bend and brush needles from the brassy helmets of the dead.

These are very brief, very terse poems, and without the silence, the space around them, their significance, such as it might be, could easily be lost. This is true of graphic art as well. The space around a drawing or a print plays a significant role in the successful apprehension of the image. This is especially true in book illustration.

TL:
Your prose is crisp, vivid, and alive. However, you rarely use complex sentence structures or syntactical distortion. What are some considerations you undertake to make your prose original and fresh?

GY:
When you abandon the line in your poems, the sentence becomes your fundamental organizing structure, and sentences are primarily ordered by grammar and by syntax. I’m not particularly interested in tap-dancing in a poem, and while I’m flattered that you think that I may be doing something “new,” all I’m really doing is trying to write with as much clarity as I can. I love long sentences (I’m thinking now of William Faulkner as much as I am of a poet like C. K. Williams) as much as I love short ones. I suppose all I really want a sentence to do is work. Of course, if it’s also lovely, that’s a plus.

TL:
Yet the sentences in your poems—long or short—are rarely grammatically tangled. Why is it that you chose a more direct utterance, and avoid the tap dancing you speak of?

GY:
I’m never smarter than I am when I’m writing a poem. The seductiveness of that intelligence, which seems to exist outside and independent of my own limited intellectual capacity, is best played out in my own mind by simple declaration. I don’t think poems should be puzzles—the world is puzzling enough. I want my poems to be windows: as clear as possible.

TL:
On the surface it would seem your prose pieces could be arranged in a variety of ways. However, I sense the sequence is carefully considered. What factors determine how you arrange your poems in any single book?

GY:
All of my books are carefully sequenced, but they are also designed to be read randomly. Each of my last five books can be read as a single, long poem. That’s one reason that I don’t title my individual poems. They’re meaningful utterances meant to travel horizontally across the page until they end. I also want the poems in my books to speak to one another. In my trilogy, No Other Life, the three separate books are themselves meant to be in dialog; questions asked in one book may be answered in another. This is how my own consciousness seems to work, and how memory plays out in my life. I order my books the same way I order any experience. The poems in Days were ordered in such a way as to chronicle a year; Braver Deeds follows the course of my lover’s death from cancer and my mother’s suicide; If He Had traces the failing health and ultimate death of a child. The poems in Pleasure, on the other hand, were organized almost entirely by tone. I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying that organization is important to me, but it tends to be eccentric and organic.

TL:
Can you elaborate on how the individual sections of the trilogy No Other Life participate in a sort of dialog or conversation with each other?

GY:
There are several themes and signature events that are revealed and analyzed from different perspectives in all of my books, but it might be easier to give the example of the people who crop up regularly in my work. My mother first appears in Days:

I last saw my mother a week after her suicide, in a dream. She was so shy; she was only there a moment. I’d called her stupid. How could you be so stupid? Eight years later she’s back. What do you want, I ask her, what do you really want? I want to sing, she says. And she sings.

In later books we discover that she sang for soldiers during World War II when she was very young. We learn that she sang for soldiers again in Vietnam, and we learn a great deal more about her suicidal nature and her ultimate demise. We also see her again in a dream:

My cousin had a dream last night about my mother. He said, I was sobbing, and she held me, and rocked me in her arms as I cried. She turned, and looked behind us at a room full of people, and I asked, do they know you’re here? And she said, no, no they don’t. My cousin said, I’d never dreamed of her before, and I woke up happy; I was still crying, but I felt all right. Then he stopped, and I asked, how is she? And he said, great, great. She looked great.

My brother appears in all of my books, depicted at various ages and in various attitudes; my dear friend and mentor, Gene Holtan glides through my books, as do many other friends and characters.

TL:
Dreams play an important part in many of your poems . . .

GY:
I have never felt any great distinction between my waking life and my dream life, at least not experientially. Whenever I ask myself, “Where am I?” I’m no less confused, thrilled, awed or satisfied to realize that I’m awake or dreaming. The two states certainly seem to inform one another, and my waking consciousness is often less cohesive than my dreaming mind. Memories often come to me unbidden. These are frequently random memories from childhood or adolescence. This happens more often as I’ve gotten older. Memories of certain dreams come to me the same way. The dreams I remember are very often from decades ago. The memory of an event, and the memory of a dream—in each case the memories (as I experience them) are identical.

TL:
Discussing any of your poems proves a bit problematic. On the one hand, they compel the active reader to name and interpret the silences, ideas, and emotions expressed in them. On the other hand, these very silences, as well as each poem’s simplicity and directness, beg that they be left alone, free of the deadening rigors of analysis.

GY:
I like to think that my poems could stand up to some kind of rigorous critical analysis, and yet I find the idea slightly embarrassing. Like most lyric poets, my chief preoccupation is to stop time, to rescue a piece of the world from the uncountable, single instants moving irresistibly from the future, to the present, and forever into the past. What a maelstrom. It’s hard to get a grip on anything. Ideally my poems offer the caring reader a spot outside the storm from which to take a bearing.

TL:
Your poems seem calm on the surface because of their careful, deliberate construction, but they are anything but precious. In fact, they often reference violence and illness in surprising ways. There seems to be a tension between the calm, meditative surface and the often-turbulent emotional content.

GY:
I suppose this is particularly true of my book Braver Deeds, which is specifically about violence—political, sexual, emotional, physical. It’s difficult to write about violence (or pain, or the suffering of others) without pandering to your reader. Writing about violence, and I would certainly include illness as a kind of violence, easily becomes sensationalism. That’s one of the chief problems with popular culture, and why movies and books are so full of mayhem—murder, random violence, explosions and the like. It was important for me to find a way to write about violence without sensationalizing it. A calm voice was the only way, but of course the violence is still there, and violence is a violation, however it’s portrayed or endured. Simone Weil says that violence is the only thing that can damage a soul. I suspect that’s true. I love the world, and I love my life, but each is certainly a burden.

TL:
Discuss your decision to omit quotation marks.

GY:
I use dialog frequently in my poems. I really do love what people say, the little poems they offer each other in their daily speech. Quotation marks create the impression that a new voice, a new consciousness has entered a poem. They also create a presumption in the reader that someone is being quoted faithfully and honestly. That may not always be the case. I may have fabricated the quote, or altered it, or remembered it wrong. The truth is that I almost never refine or modify a quote, but I might. I don’t want the reader to forget that the voice of the poem is consistent. It’s me talking, even when I’m quoting someone else.

TL:
Do you see yourself—Gary Young the writer—as the “I” in your poems, or do you make a distinction between author and persona?

GY:
When I say it’s “me talking,” I mean the voice of the poem. Insofar as I’m the author, it’s my authorial voice. I don’t want to surrender the authority for what’s being said. Even if someone else is being quoted, it’s my duty as an artist to take responsibility for its being allowed into the poem.

TL:
Your poems are remarkably powerful, in part because they seem so deliberately modest, so humble. They remind me of Charles Reznikoff’s objectivist poems. He too is a remarkably generous poet who chooses to approach his craft with modesty. Have you ever seen a connection between you and him—or any of the objectivists?

GY:
I wouldn’t presume to put myself in a continuum with Williams, Pound, Zukofsky, Reznikoff and the all the rest, but their poetry was, and continues to be both an inspiration and an aspiration. Pound’s and Williams’s translations from the Chinese were my introduction to the Imagists, and I still read their poems and their translations with delight and with amazement. I have to admit that of that group it’s George Oppen who’s had the greatest influence on me. I love his melancholy; his quiet communion with a world he loves, but recognizes is tarnished and imperfect. Stylistically, the prose sections of Of Being Numerous were profoundly influential. They make me weep.

TL:
So many prose poets seem to resort to irony and satire as hallmarks of the form. But your poems are almost entirely devoid of an ironic sensibility. When you say something, you mean it. Your tone is earnest.

GY:
Irony has its place, but I’m not interested in writing ironic poems. I’m not really all that interested in ironic art, either. You’ve hit it on the head: when I say something in a poem, I want to be believed. I can lie to the IRS or to my friends at the bar if I want to lie to someone. Why would I lie in a poem? I don’t see the point in that. I see no purpose in mocking or satirizing a subject, either. There’s something about irony that has always struck me as being snide. I don’t see it as being very productive. What does it do? It doesn’t do much other than make people feel bad, or obfuscate what is being discussed, talked about, or pointed out. I think one of the worst things about irony is that it tends to misdirect reasonable discord and legitimate rebellion. Why be ironic when you can be angry? ‘Earnest’ has become a pejorative term, and it shouldn’t be. If I find something worthy of disdain, I would rather say, “I find this thing disdainful” rather than be ironic and pretend I like it.

TL:
There is such a rampant expression of irony in media, youth culture, in art, in literature. So much so that when I first read your work, I didn’t know how to react to it. I was so disarmed by its earnestness, its honesty, its directness. I felt stripped naked. Initially, I was shaken. Such honesty and directness is what makes Whitman such an embarrassing figure for many people to read.

GY:
Of course! Whitman “sees through the broadcloth and gingham whether or no.” He says, “Undrape!”—Strip off your clothes, baby! And you know he means just what he says. In contemporary culture we are so used to covering up. To be honest is to set yourself up for ridicule, which is, I think, pathetic culturally, damaging personally, and dangerous politically. And where are we emotionally if we can’t say what we want to say? If we can’t do that, we’re dead.

TL:
Many of your poems introduce a situation or memory; then a concept is extracted from it. The concept then gets reworked and understood through another situation or context. I sense here the ghost of the sonnet form with its dualities of structure and surprising turns. Care to comment?

GY:
Somewhere in his book of prose poems, The Bourgeois Poet, Karl Shapiro says, “This is a paragraph. A paragraph is a sonnet in prose.” There’s no question that prose poems, at least the way I write them, are more like sonnets than any other poetic form. If the poet’s intention, as I’ve already mentioned, is to stop time, to grasp some small part of the world—a concept, an image, a memory, person or event—to render it precisely, and to suggest it’s ramifications and infinite correspondences, the sonnet is the ideal model. Brad Crenshaw’s book My Gargantuan Desire is a marvelous collection of prose poems, but each one was written as a Shakespearean sonnet. Crenshaw enjoys the rigors of the form, and relies on it as a method of directing his poetic intelligence, but once the poem is complete, he prints it out as prose. The meter, the rhyme, all the poetic rhetoric and intensity inheres in the form, even as it’s disguised. He believes, and I agree, that the sonnet form on the page distracts from the apprehension of the poem, even though the form is necessary to birth the poem in the first place.

TL:
Have other poetic forms besides Haiku and the sonnet influenced your conception of the prose poem?

GY:
My grandfather was a Methodist minister, so I was raised on the King James Bible. Certainly the verse cast as prose in the Bible was an influence and a model. I have to say that all the poetic forms and varieties of poems I’ve studied and loved have influenced my conception of the prose poem. The prose poem is simply a form; it will be useful to some, and useless to others. As I’ve said, form supports the ceremony of the poem. What that ceremony celebrates, mourns, witnesses or bemoans will ultimately be the burden and the treasure of the poet.

TL:
Do the occasional Buddhist references in your work emerge as an extension of your aesthetic or vice versa?

GY:
I think they’re so completely wedded at this point. The way I decided, or rather found my vocation to write really began when I was an adolescent. I remember it very well. My junior high school had a book fair in the library. (My children’s school still has them.) I was about twelve years old. For whatever reason, I bought Oscar Williams’s Immortal Poems of the English Language and Witter Bynner’s The Jade Mountain, his translations from the T’ang Dynasty. After reading those two books there was no doubt in my mind that I was going to be a poet. Of course, I wanted to be a Chinese poet. The truth is, that’s what I’ve always wanted to be. But you can’t be a Chinese poet if you’re not Chinese, and you certainly can’t be a T’ang Dynasty poet if you’ve been born 1,200 years after the fact. Still, the desire for that kind of rhetoric and clarity was born the moment I started reading seriously. Since then, I’ve done a lot of study in Buddhism, and read a lot of poems in translation, and have even done some translations of my own. But to say whether or not my aesthetic rose from my exposure to Buddhism or whether my understanding of Buddhism has been informed by my aesthetic, I can’t really say or dissect at this point.

TL:
There seems to be a fascinating fusion of Christian and Buddhist thought in your work.

GY:
Well, I could never turn my back on Christianity. I am not a Christian, but I was raised as one. I was very close with my paternal grandmother, a devoutly Christian woman who lived until she was 98. She was married to my grandfather, who I’ve already said was a Methodist minister. So that was a huge part of my upbringing. I know the Bible well, and love much of it. Those biblical cadences, references, metaphors . . . my spirit is stained with it.

TL:
Interesting phrase!

GY:
I left the faith behind long ago, but it has influenced how I think. I believe in an incarnated world, even though I do not believe the spirit of Jesus Christ incarnates it. One of my ambivalences with Buddhism is that I believe the world exists. I cannot turn my back on matter. The world may be an illusion insofar as we are incapable, or too un-evolved to see everything that is here—incapable of seeing what really is going on around us. To be honest, I don’t worry too much about the notion of God per se. Simone Weil said, “There’s a part of me that’s not ready for God.” Well, I think that most of us are not ready for God. We’re smart monkeys, and we’ve figured out a couple of things, but the world is so much more complicated, and so much more transcendent that we’re capable of comprehending. We cheat ourselves by thinking we know more than we do. I believe in matter. I think this desk I’m sitting at is really here; it’s not an illusion. And I believe some kind of spirit inheres in every object, every piece of matter. On the other hand, the whole idea of an afterlife I discount completely. I don’t believe in immortality, though I do believe in eternity. I don’t think what has happened can be taken away. That’s one of the foundations of my belief: the things that have been, will have been forever, whether time stops or not. What has been will have been always. I take comfort in that.

TL:
So you’re kind of an Aristotelian Christian!

GY:
That works! I read of a lot of Thomas Aquinas, particularly through the works of Jacques Maritain. The Schoolmen were the first philosophers that I encountered who used language to describe the world in ways I could really apprehend. I might disagree with their conclusions, but I reveled in the language they used to parse the particulars of the world and our activities in it. So many of my Catholic friends couldn’t stand to look at it anymore, but not having been raised a Catholic, I ate that stuff up.

TL:
It sounds as if it were more of a theological concern than a religious one.

GY:
Absolutely—and more philological. The Thomists had a language for particulars; they talked about different kinds of morality, virtue and modes of aesthetics that I hadn’t found anywhere else.

TL:
In what ways is Pleasure different than your other books of prose poems?

GY:
It’s more mundane than any of my other books. I’m using that as a positive.

TL:
How so?

GY:
People tend to write about explosive, exciting, dangerous or horrible things. We want some drama, whereas in fact, we spend most of our lives in extremely undramatic circumstances. Who would want to live like Oliver Twist, or like a character in Apocalypse Now? No thank you. Most of our lives are filled with eating, sleeping, working, making love, walking the dog and looking at the sunset. If we do not have such pleasures available to us, our lives are pretty shitty. I couldn’t think of a book where such mundane things had been addressed exclusively. I wanted to dive into that. I’d always believed that pleasure was transitory, and relatively peripheral to our lives. As I began to write the book, I realized that pleasure was sustaining; it was a necessity. I also discovered that pleasure wasn’t just having sex or winning the golden ribbon; it really was cracking eggs into the bacon fat, or finding a mushroom, or kissing my kids when they’re asleep. I wanted to dig deeper into that.

TL:
Can you discuss your preference for print publications rather than online ones?

GY:
Like everybody else, I live on my computer. I’m not a Luddite, but I am an old letterpress printer. I love books. I love the feel of them. They’re certainly the most intimate of human artifacts. The fact that we take books to bed is indicative of that. There aren’t many things we crawl into bed with other than a partner or a book. Books have a body. The word on a computer screen is just light. That works, but it doesn’t involve my hands. I want to hold a book the way I hold a lover. That’s what books provide. As important as the computer is in our world, I don’t see it ever fulfilling that function. I don’t think the book will ever die.

TL:
Would you consider yourself a prolific writer?

GY:
Depending on my mood, I think I’ve published too much, or I’ve wasted my life and I could have written twice as many books—and should have. I think most writers vacillate between those two poles. I’m not a person who gets up everyday and writes for two hours. My life is much too chaotic. I have domestic obligations: children, my wife. I live in the mountains, which requires a lot of maintenance. I teach, I print, I have a life, I coach little league! There are things that go on that eat up the hours; they take time. Writing is not always a priority. For some, it has to be in order to write at all. For me it isn’t. I only write those things that are necessary for me to write. I love to write, and when I’m not writing, I often feel as if I’m betraying my art, my gift, my calling, but that sensation is probably hubris or neurosis as much as anything else. The problem, and one of the joys of writing poetry, is that none of us can really count on entering the canon. The chances are that none of our work will survive long after we’re gone. That’s just the way it is. To feel otherwise is foolish. We write in competition with the dead for the attention of the unborn. We are all writing poems that are trying to take the attention of people away from Sappho, Shakespeare, Whitman, and Baudelaire. Good luck to you! There’s a built-in failure to writing poetry that I find comforting.

TL:
How so?

GY:
If you know you’re doomed to failure, then you can work freely. People who think their work is going to last, or that it matters, well . . . I always try to disabuse my students of their desire to write for fame. I ask them, “Who here has read Shakespeare?” Everyone raises his or her hand. We agree that his work is immortal, then I remind them: “he’s still dead. He’s as dead as he’d have been if you hadn’t read him; and you’ll be dead too someday, no matter how well you write.” To sacrifice your life for your art is an appalling notion. On the other hand, I have been called to be a poet, and it’s an unimaginably rich gift. Like every artist, I know that in order to be a moral, effective human being, I have to give myself wholly to my art. The trick is finding a balance. If you can’t recognize that your art is no more, and no less, important than what you make for dinner, then you should find something else to do.

 
 
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