Friday, July 31, 2015

Moonlight Musings

I tend to write at night. (Smile.) 
Welcome to the new column; I hope you enjoy it.









 



What Price Poetry?

What do you think? Is it more important that our art is taken seriously and paid for, or is it more important that we get it out there to as many readers as possible, even if that’s our only reward? Or can we have it both ways?

Occupation: poet

When I was a child, and people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I said, 'A poet'. My parents pointed out, quite kindly, that a poet wasn't a thing you could 'be' in that sense: it wouldn't earn you a living. My generation of Australian poets proved them wrong eventually, but we had to include various related activities such as writing book reviews for publications that paid, and teaching poetry writing in colleges as part of Professional Writing courses. Even then, it was a frugal living. 

Late last century the Poets Union of Australia espoused the principle that writing poetry is work, deserving of payment. This was one of the platforms on which the Union was founded in 1977.

We were sick of the notion that if we had a poem published in a newspaper (squeezed into a tiny corner of a page somewhere, buried deep) or if we were grudgingly allowed to recite a short poem or two between bands at a rock concert, the honour and glory should be sufficient. Newspaper editors and concert organisers thought we should be grateful, not paid.

The Union did succeed in establishing the principle of payment for our work. Admittedly, some small literary magazines paid in copies of the issue you were in, rather than cash; and if venue owners were struggling to make money, the poets might donate the fee back to them. But at least we established the principle. And we supported each other, buying the magazines and the books. Those who subsisted solely on their writing (and the related activities) proudly wrote 'poet' when declaring their occupation.

There was something of a boom in Australian poetry at that time, with a proliferation of small presses and performance opportunities. Heck, sometimes poetry was the whole concert!  One or two featured readers would be paid from the door takings; others would read a poem each in the 'open section'. Hopefully we’d all get a turn at being featured.

I don't know what is happening now, all these decades later, about payment of poets. I haven't been much involved in performance in the last 20 years, since moving away from the city; even less so with printed (i.e. paper) literary magazines and anthologies. It's a while since I got paid in actual money.

Marketing 

Even in the old days, when I was an independent publisher of poetry (some of it award-winning) the business ran at a loss. Poor marketing, you think? One of my publications — in addition to being short-listed for two major prizes, and being by a popular, high-profile poet — got a double-page centre spread, editorial and photos, in the most popular daily paper in the State. You can't get much more mainstream than that! This wonderful free publicity did not sell one copy.

However, we (meaning not only the small presses but the individual poets) did sell our books by other means, and some sold well — albeit from small print-runs of 500 copies, which was about what the market at the time could bear. But it was a battle. Everyone knew poetry didn't sell, therefore agents wouldn't touch the stuff and very few publishers, apart from idealistic small presses like my own, would take it on. Even when they did, the distributors didn't push it hard to the bookshops because everyone knew poetry didn't sell, and most of the booksellers, knowing this too, didn't bother to display it or promote it. Therefore it didn't sell — a self-fulfilling prophecy. Or so we told ourselves, with some truth. There is also some truth in the view that it doesn't sell anyway, at least not in great quantities. It's certainly a niche market.

We sold our books gradually. We sold them via book launches, to our friends and relatives and other poets. We sold them at poetry readings, to our audiences. We sold some to libraries around the country, who felt duty-bound to stock them and support Australian culture. We gave away a number of review copies, and sold a few to readers of the reviews.

Stop me if you know all this already! I imagine it wasn't much different in other countries.

The Digital Age

And now? It's a different century. There were always poets who self-published chapbooks, usually as a prelude to achieving ‘respectable’ publication. Now this practice is commonplace, particularly in the form of ebooks, and has become respectable as an end in itself. The ebooks sell at very low prices or are offered free. Performance poetry (or spoken word poetry, as it's now called) is shared more and more on YouTube.

I've embraced the digital poetry world, along with most if not all of you who are reading this. In recent years I have produced very few books, most of them collaborations and only one of them in paperback as well as ebook. They aren't selling well. I give away most of my poetry for free in blogs and on facebook and twitter. So, I think, do you.

I'm not hankering for the old days, although I enjoyed them at the time. Mainly, we wanted to take poetry 'off the page' and into people's lives. We did — a bit, for a while. We started something. We were the precursors of spoken word and rap, and poetry slams. We were part of what I now realise was a world-wide 'idea whose time had come'. It was wild and wonderful, and I hobnobbed with poets of amazing brilliance who were doing innovative things. But that time is past. Now, in the digital age, things have changed again. Good heavens, I've now taken part in two poetic revolutions!

The second might seem to be a backward sort of change if we've lost the principle of being paid for our work ... for our art.

What do we do it for?

But I recall Fay Weldon (I think it was her) advising a young writer — not even about poetry but fiction — that the only good reason to do it was for the love of it, not for the problematical income.

And indeed, who writes poetry solely for the possibility of making money? (You see? That’s laughable!) No, we write it because we must. It's a compulsion, a vocation. Or maybe, for some, it is simply a pleasant hobby — but I bet they'd miss it if they were compelled to stop. Let's face it, we do it for its own sake.

I always think that the first impulse in doing it is self-expression, closely followed by the second, which is to communicate it.

I think we get at least as much readership on our blogs as we might by being published in paper literary magazines with limited circulation. If we get into digital literary magazines, all the better. Many of them don't regard poems posted to a blog as ineligible for inclusion, whereas most paper lit mags, as far as I know, still do.

Even the most successful poets, those few names known around the world, have usually worked at other jobs to pay the bills. Often, it has been as academics, absolutely giving the lie to the saying that 'those who can't, teach'.

Work or play?

So, is poetry our work? It can require much devoted time and effort, that's for sure. But I've come to align myself with Ms Weldon, who insisted that the reason we should not do it for money is that it's not work but play, and that if we want to retain our love for it, let alone continue to do it well, we must treat it that way. (Or something like that. I’m paraphrasing from memory.)

I know that if ever I try to write deep and meaningful things, capital-I Important, I very easily dry up and develop writer's block. What breaks the block is simply to start playing with words. Then, before I know it, I have a poem. (Sometimes it even turns out to be deep and meaningful. As for 'important', that's for others to judge ... I'd settle for 'moving'.)

Well, perhaps we can do both. Perhaps we can hold it as both work and play, and hope for both remuneration and readership. I know that many of you keep a foot in both camps, and good luck to you!

But I’m old; I can’t be bothered playing the game of ‘getting into reputable printed publications’ any more. Nowadays I like the ‘blogging poet’ game and the international poetic community it puts me in touch with. The great treat is that I find myself hobnobbing with poets of amazing brilliance, who are doing innovative things.

Feel free to share your thoughts.


Photo © Rosemary Nissen-Wade 2013

44 comments:

  1. Great thoughts and really insightful indeed. Thanks for sharing!

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  2. I am not worthy of the list. I write when a prompt speaks to me. With that said, great post, and I will be spying from the side lines and writing poetry sometimes. Thanks for all the awesome prompts.

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    1. Of course you are worthy, Gail! 'A real writer is one who really writes.' (Marge Piercy.) That's it – you're one of us. :-)

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  3. Dearest Rosemary, your words put an huge smile on my face. I write because I love it... and because like you suggest, I don't think I can to stop writing. Goodness knows that if I tried to support myself with my fiction and poetry (and I'm rather new to poetry, by the way) I would probably starve to death... or at least be unhealthily skinny.

    I have never published any poetry other than on my blog (haven't tried), but I'm working on something to sell now. If it sells well (or at all), I will be happy. If three people buy it and love it, I will be happy. If one person emails me to say that my words touched him or her, I will be happy. I do it for love, but I wouldn't be too upset if one day my word-love makes some cash.

    I love the journey you've shared with us. It helps me keep in mind that the things that truly matter will always matter--when we are 20, 30, 60, 75.3, always.. ♥

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    1. I suspect it may be even harder now, in the digital age, for all but the very few to support themselves by writing. Although self-publishing has become much easier, selling prices have become lower.

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    2. I think, Magaly and Rosemary, that you both add signature to your writing--perhaps you cannot help it. Your personality helps in the revelation of the truths you are gracing us with. That in itself can gain a following. A chamelion myself, I follow several poets who boldly stand forth in a signature meaningful to me.

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    3. Susan, I'm sending your words right back at you. ♥

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  4. I Nice post. I enjoyed walking down memory lane with you. I've published a chapbook and have a poetry book I hope to also have published. I think I like to keep my options open and slip one through every now and then. I am however, intrigued by poetry blogging. I also write novels, flash fiction and shorts, so due to the time factor editing poetry, it has kind of left me undecided. But I do try to give poetry an equal balance. Thanks for sharing. Have a pleasant weekend.

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    1. There is some satisfaction in getting a book out there. It's worth editing the poetry well, as you are doing, and eventually it will be ready.

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  5. Love your post and thoughts on the business of poetry. I write because I enjoy it and have never expected payment. But, I never wrote so often and with intent till I found poetry blogs (thank goodness for them). I live for the comments and when one poem, or more often one line or turn of phrase, connects with another person - boom. I feel like I've found a friend and kindred-spirit.

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    1. I agree - a besutiful way to connect with other souls.

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  6. I have a friend who keeps telling me to enter contests or submit poems to magazines. I
    think her idea is that if I got paid, it would prove my poetry has worth. I have no energy for that. I write poetry because I love it. Blogging is enough for me. It's not only fun, but it is my new form of meditation, or at least of getting to know myself better. But my ego is not totally outside this process. I would love it if more people read my poems and liked them. That's the best reward for me.

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    1. Yes, Myrna, that is the best reward! In the old days, and perhaps even now, being placed in contests and accepted for magazines was another way of widening your readership. I expect your friend wants everyone to enjoy and appreciate your writing as she does (and we here do).

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  7. Shoot just lost a lengthy comment.I LOVE your moonlight musings and this is a conversation it is so interesting to have. I enjoyed reading your history - love that you lived through two poetry revolutions, LOL. Here are two illustrations, two poetic journeys. My friend, whose mother was a highly recognized poet in the 70's, is a talented poet in her own right. She devoted persistent hard work for over twenty years to gain recognition in the literary world and it finally came to her in recent years. She worked very hard, determined her work would be published by publishing houses and that has happened, she has several books out. She has made little if any money through her writing. Her satisfaction is in finally being recognized in the literary world. In my case, I didnt care about being published. I have always written, since childhood because I simply must. For years I had little support or encouragement to do so, and my writing began to dry up. Then with delight I found the poetry blogosphere and am now writing happily and steadily. I think more people read my work (and that absolutely BLOWS ME AWAY) than would come across it had I a few books moldering in the back aisles of a few bookstores. It is amazing to me what blogging has done for poetry in giving us such a large platform. I archive my work in self published books in order to preserve it, and I give some away. Like Debi, I am so grateful for my readers online. It warms me when something I write touches someone's heart. In short, the blogosphere gave my writing new life- gave ME a new life, as now I am connected with poets across the globe. What could be better?

    Rosemary, I love this column and am now eagerly looking forward to the next! Great topic!!!!!!

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    1. Thanks, Sherry. xx
      I can share a story too. Once upon a time there were three Aussie poets who were friends, who formed a writers' support group. The youngest yearned for literary success, the other two of us had achieved some small measure of that. Decades later the youngest, after various academic studies in writing, has had a poetry book published to great critical acclaim and is about to launch her first novel. (She has also published a number of successful medical texts, being doctor as well as writer.) I - the oldest - now give print publication a very secondary role, when I bother with it at all, and have totally embraced the digital poetry world. The third went sorta grassroots. She has a small presence online, but mostly she does things in her live community. She pioneered what she now calls interactive poetry and started by calling on-the-spot poetry, where at fairs and markets and even in shopping centres, she writes for people the poems they would want to write if they were poets. She has worked in schools, empowering kids to make their own poems. She has also produced lots of physical chapbooks of her own poetry in small print runs. She has created bookmarks and placemats with poems on, for xmas presents. She has received funding to tour country towns along our great Murray River and write poems celebrating and involving those communities. She has produced books of poems by and for refugees, to give voice to their plight and raise money to help them. And so on and so on. It's curious to me that the youngest of us has gone a traditional route, the oldest is into the online scene. One might expect it to be the other way around. But mostly, what strikes me is that each of us got exactly what she wanted and aimed for, and is happy with that result. There are many ways to fulfil ourselves through poetry.

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    2. What a wonderful story! I especially love the poet who takes poetry live into the community, gives it for gifts, inspires kids, and helps those who wish they could give someone a poem to do so. Wow. That is very cool!!!! Each poetic journey perfectly suited to the poet herself.

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    3. Sherry, if it's a lengthy comment, it would be better if you copied it before hitting the publish button, it would save much time I think....

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    4. Thanks for the stories that give us all such great ideas. For sharing! A teacher myself, I love every way of releasing another's voice, starting with sharing stories.

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  8. I loved this post! What you say about poetry, is of course true about art as well. I love the prompts, I am encouraged to write, just to 'see.' It cannot be for money alone, money is nice, but won't last...it has to be for the love of it. What I read in the blogosphere enriches my life, and I am grateful! I have found so many wonderful writers!

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    1. I should have said, the 'visual arts.' I did not mean that poetry is not art, of course it is....

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    2. Yes, I too am constantly astonished and thrilled by the calibre of poetry I find on people's blogs. It's great that brilliant poets no longer have to compete for the limited spots in printed literary magazines etc.

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    3. PS I used to think poets were better off than visual artists in that we could sell or give away our art and still keep it. But now, in this digital age, I think it must be easier for many artists to do that too (depending on their medium).

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  9. Interesting article, Rosemary! I like your new feature. I find myself wondering how many people are poets by profession today. I wonder if anyone CAN support themselves by writing poetry. (You mentioned that as well.) Usually it seems that even well known poets are also college professors, doesn't it?

    I remember on the local poetry scene when many poets put together chapbooks. I bought a few, but mostly I thought they were overpriced. In the digital age, I do wonder how many do chapbooks now.

    I think in the digital age there are more people who write poetry for the enjoyment of it and the sociability of it. I think this is fine. Poetry IS to be enjoyed. And, hey, we can read each other's poetry for free.

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    1. Yes indeed, Mary! To my mind, what is the point of it if not to be enjoyed? Both the writing and the reading. As annell says, the poetry blogosphere enriches us - in many ways.

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  10. I too wonder whether nowadays anyone can write poetry and survive. I do not think so. A lot of the most famous poets often teach in colleges too. I like the free dimension of the blogosphere where we can just write and read, as if in a big café or pub. There are so fine poets around. I also enjoy sharing what I write, something I never dreamed of.

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  11. This is a very interesting article Rosemary. I once held a copy of one of my niece's poetry book with a beautiful cover and even more beautiful poems. A published book does give its author a kind of joy. In our State West Bengal poetry book sells well if it's of a well known poet. Every kind of book has its own readers. While reading this insightful article a thought crossed my mind about the readers. The group of poetry readers in every country has always been small. So success in money matter would always be hard to achieve. In my school where I work it's sad to see that no one is interested in poetry.
    Blogging has given a fresh lease of life to the poets no doubt. First of all we write because we can't do without it and we need to have at least one reader for appreciation and inspiration. Any creative activity is a labor of love and and if there is any reward it's the readership.
    Thanks for the post Rosemary. Looking forward to many more such interesting articles.

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    1. Thank you, Sumana. Interesting, if a little sad, to know that the poetry audience in India is as small as in Western countries. I have sometimes nourished the romantic hope that in Asian countries it might be more widely enjoyed. A strange phenomenon, when one reflects that it is the art form that people instinctively turn to in many human circumstances, such as when they fall in love, or when they are imprisoned.

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  12. Congratulations on this interesting post. Someone gave me a book called A Recipe Book For Paupers And Poets:) which says it all I think. Most of the best poetry by far is written by blogger poets. I only wished I had made a copy of the ones which really moved me. Must remember to do that in the future.If we manage to connect with a few readers then it's bells and whistles time. I agree with you that human emotions are best expressed and crystallized in poetry.It's terribly addictive. Once you start you just cannot stop.

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  13. Rosemary thank you!

    I so enjoyed reading your Moonlight Musings.

    I, like many of you write poetry because it is like breathing or eating, parts of me would die from the lack if I just stopped.

    I have some really strong feelings about this topic and wish that we did not even have to ask the question-- 'do we do it for money or selfless-ness ' because we do it -- because we love it! The rub is only because we want both.

    I call myself a poet as if it is my profession. My mother-in-law thinks I should sell myself as a business owner /CEO because in her mind that is more noteworthy. But our business is centered on writing, social media, and yes poetry. Our business goal is to write and get paid and paid well. Are we making lots of money? Not yet. But being optimistic, I think we will.

    Personally I think poetry needs to shake loose it's elitist cloak. I think we need to stop looking at traditional ways, as the only way, to be successful and well-to-do poets. Instead I think we have to hybrid our mediums. We are so fortunate right now that we can blog and share our poems on Facebook and the other social medias. We have YouTube and Instagram to attract people in visual ways. Our poems can be everywhere fully incorporated in everyday life.

    We as poets hold so much potential to make our poetic ambitions realities. We think it is important to keep our eyes on the prizes of fulfillment and fun. I think with fulfillment and fun we will attract the money. I hope ;)

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    1. Thank you, Delaina, for this great contribution to the discussion! Yes, even poets must eat and pay their bills! How to do that and still write and get the writing heard, that's the tricky bit! I guess we all figure it out in our own ways. Your particular venture is very heartening! And I so agree with you about shaking free of elitism. I love the concept, 'to hybrid our mediums'. 'Do what you love and the money will follow?' I always have, but the money can be only just sufficient. Still, the goals of fun and fulfilment are certainly rewarding; how else, I always think, would one choose to spend one's life?

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  14. With low energy, I admit it took me three settings to read all of this--but I felt driven. It is so good, Rosemary! Both the musings and the responses. I have stories to share of an but not of turning poetry into lucrative work. I had thought poets would support each other and report that there is nothing better than the publishing process to finally get good and useful feedback, to finally become who we are. But it is not the only way as you have shown. What is surprising me now with my first self-published book out there is how few poets even buy the books of poets who bought their books! It shouldn't surprise me. We can't afford it, first of all, and second of all--what would we do with all of those volumes? We are a growing movement holding hands around the world. Think of it! Love your musings, Rosemary.

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    1. Susan, I so appreciate your making the effort to read and respond, and trust it means recovery is under way. I do find it hard to afford printed books, but buy lots of ebooks by other poets. Which solves the problem of what to do with all the volumes, too. :-)

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  15. This is such a wonderful post. It was a treat to read it. For me, poetry is a kind of compulsion. I keep scribbling poetry in my twitter, instagram and ofcourse blog. If they get published in any anthology of a reputed publishing house, I feel happy. I am willing to publish a poetry collection of mine as eBoo
    k. Don't know how much it will sell but for the sake of happiness and self-motivation.
    Cheers to all the lovely poets. I feel blessed to be one of them :)

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    1. Oh yes, I know all about that compulsion! In the days when we thought the world would blow up (instead of get hit by a meteor or die slowly from climate change) I used to say, 'Come the holocaust, I'll go out scratching a poem in the dirt with a stick.' It's the thing I can't not do. Good luck with the plans for your ebook!

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    2. And yes, it is indeed the greatest of blessings.

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  16. What a wonderful post Rosemary - I agree writing should be play even though it takes work..the blogging world offers more than print in a way as you directly connect with an audience through which you can learn, play, share ideas - find like minded friends - that's the most special for me. Perhaps the 'best' writers aren't the ones who earn the most money - rather they are the 'best' business brokers..and that is well..yawn!

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    1. I agree; the idea of trying to make writing one's business seems to go against the grain. Whereas doing it for the joy of it and finding like-minded friends along the way - that's riches!

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  17. hey, this is a very interesting feature.

    i think the internet, especially social media, revolutionize the way literature can be accessible to the masses. i wasn't writing much poetry a decade back until i joined an online poetry forum. there we met like-minded people, read their poems and comment and critique (yes, we can be pretty harsh :D) their work. then i created my blog and suddenly realized that there are actually people who read my work.
    before that , all my poems were hidden in little journals. sure, some were sent out in competitions, some won prizes and got columns in the newspapers. that was about all the audience i can get. until the net came along.

    no, i don't think i can make a living as a poet in my country. i think my country has produced some really great poets, living or dead (no please, not including me!). the top living poets tend to be in academia, which i assumed is not too bad a place to earn money. i write because i like it, not because i need it. But i would really like to see my poems in print one day. a few poems in an anthology don't count, isn't it?

    thanks for this interesting article. :)

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    1. I too am writing a lot more since joining the internet poetry world!

      It used to be that winning competitions, getting into newspapers and having poems in anthologies were all steps towards getting a publisher to take you on, because they indicated there could be an audience for your work. Now, I don't know. It still could work, and the fact that your blog has lots of readers might help too. It might be worth a try, when you feel ready! And if all else fails, you can self-publish. So many are doing that nowadays, it is no longer a sign that your work is inferior; it has become a way of taking control of one's own career.

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    2. thanks for the tip on self-publishing. i may seriously think about it when i retire, and that is pretty soon. :)
      a local publisher once offered to look through my works, and i gave her the url of my blog, but till now there was no further response. i guess i still have to produce a manuscript. :)

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