In Memoriam: The Things They Buried in the Yard

hartnett-author-photoThere was a story my grandfather liked to tell, and it was my favorite one for bedtime. When my grandfather was a kid, a skunk got into the basement of The Women’s Club in town, nobody knew how. He had volunteered to help, had tried to get the skunk to walk up a ramp and out the tiny basement window. My grandfather didn’t want the skunk to be killed. He wanted to safely lead him outside. That was one reason I loved the story, because of how gentle and big-hearted it proved my grandfather to be.

But the ramp plan didn’t work, as best-laid plans never do; the skunk sprayed my grandfather straight on. He came home defeated, and his mother wouldn’t let him in the house until he buried his clothes in the yard.

Our yard?” I always asked, because it amazed me that my grandfather had grown up in the same house I was growing up in; my parents bought the house from the great aunts. It’s still in the family now. My father says he’ll die there.

Your yard,” my grandfather said. “You should dig those smelly clothes up,” he’d laugh.

I did look for his clothes, dug hole after hole after hole. Of course they’d disintegrated over the decades, but I didn’t understand that then. My mother still finds things our family buried when she gardens, glass shards mostly. “They buried everything in the yard,” she says, in a disapproving tone. We didn’t bury much when I was growing up. We buried tulip and daffodil bulbs and one deceased family pet, a rabbit. The fish we flushed, the dogs we had cremated. I wonder if my grandfather buried his dogs in the yard. Our family always had dogs.

One dog, a golden retriever named Frisky-Frisbee, got sprayed by a skunk once, and our neighbor told my dad to wash the dog with douche wash from the pharmacy. “Yes, that’s what I said,” she nodded, when he asked her to repeat herself. So that’s what my dad did, mixed douche wash with tomato juice and washed Frisky-Frisbee in the garage. My grandfather came over to help.

My grandfather was always over to help, and I wonder which house felt more like home to him: his house where he’d raised three children, or the house where he’d grown up. Of course, the house wasn’t exactly the same. My parents had the kitchen redone, a back porch added on, a new bathroom. But some of the furniture was still there, and the horsehair plaster walls still felt a little bumpy to the touch. Plus, there’s so much family history in the house. My great-grandmother died in my bedroom, I was told, and I wondered which corner she kept her bed in. I wanted my bed in the same corner, because I wanted to feel a deep connection to my family past. I believed in ghosts, but wasn’t afraid of the ones I was related to. I heard them all the time in the attic, or I did until my parents found out we had bats.

Irabbit-cake-cover’m thirty years old now, but that house still feels like home for me, in a deeply rooted way, a way that can probably never be fully replanted elsewhere.

For the past few years, my husband and I lived in an apartment a mile from my parents, a mile from the yard where my family once buried things they no longer wanted, not knowing the yard and what was buried there would stay in the family for a long time coming, an accidental inheritance. My grandfather died thirteen years ago, but first he made me a dog-lover, and a storyteller too, and I learned from him that it’s better to tell a good story than it is to tell the truth. He once told a bar full of people that he was Terry Bradshaw’s quarterback coach; really, he was a mechanic.

I don’t smell skunks as often as I did when I was a kid; I think the population is down. When I do catch the scent, I hold my dog’s leash a little tighter, and I breathe in.

Annie Hartnett is the author of Rabbit Cake, released this March from Tin House Books. She was the 2013-2014 Writer in Residence for the Associates of the Boston Public Library, and currently teaches at Grub Street, an independent writing center in Boston. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island, with her husband and border collie. Read more at anniehartnett.com.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Michael Bazzett

BazzettMHeadshotWithin the poems of Michael Bazzett’s new collection, Our Lands Are Not So Different (Horsethief), you may find yourself in conversation with a man who “specialized in enslaving the wind” or watching a bison leap a fence. You might observe a woman slipping into another woman’s life—“an older version of herself”—as she tries on a coat in a second-hand store, or arrive in a paradise, where “the work week is fixed at thirty hours.” What all of these scenarios have in common is a storyteller’s wit and alertness to the surreal and mundane truths and coincidences of human interaction. The wind-enslaver falls in love with his listener because she begins “repeating back the last three words of / every phrase he uttered” (what woman doesn’t know that trick?), and the extra hours of leisure in Paradise are spent, in Beckettian fashion, waiting for a no-show God. The woman with the coat luxuriates in the “cool silk lining” of her fate, while the bison inspires awe with its leap because it seems to have momentarily “torn itself loose from the earth.” But Bazzett is advocating for connection, not departure, in his poems. His tales ask us to look intently at the many “lands” in which we live—historical, mythological, physical, imagined—and to wrap these “well-wrought layers” around ourselves as if each were a coat we could try on, catching sight of a “different” person in the mirror, to whom we say “Yes.”

Michael Bazzett is a 2017 NEA Creative Writing Fellow. His work has appeared in Issue 23 of Memorious, The Sun, The American Poetry Review, Ploughshares and The Iowa Review, among others. His debut collection, You Must Remember This, received the 2014 Lindquist & Vennum Prize for Poetry from Milkweed Editions, and his second poetry collection, Our Lands Are Not So Different, was recently released from Horsethief Books. His third collection, The Interrogation, is forthcoming from Milkweed, as is his verse translation of the Mayan creation epic, The Popol Vuh. He lives in Minneapolis with his wife and two children.

As I read through the book, I was struck not only by the many stories contained within the poems but perhaps even more by the different types of stories you tell. Poems such as the title poem and “The Problem of Measurement” seem to present a sort of alternative reality or history, others could be fables (“The Anecdotalist,” “Hedgehog,” “Verisimilitude”), and still others present a realism that is both terrifying and deliberate (“Coming Home” and “There Is Nothing”). And, of course, you include an actual “Parable” and a retelling of “Orpheus and Eurydice.” Do you consider yourself a storyteller, and can you discuss your approach to narrative in the book?

I do consider myself a storyteller. Absolutely. I think the impulse runs deep in us—as both tellers and listeners. It’s one of my pet theories that what primarily distinguishes Ourlandscoverhumans from other high-level primates is our ability to inhabit symbolic frameworks—in short, to live inside of narrative. So the words “Tell me a story” have a sort of yearning spell inside them. We’re looking to belong, to feel the invisible syntax of connection. No four-year-old ever climbed into someone’s lap and said, “Deconstruct my narrative.”

I probably read as many novelists as I do poets—I love to get lost in the dream, transported—particularly with someone like Ishiguro or Saramago, where one fantastical element is introduced, and the rest of it is played very straight. Part of the reason I gravitate toward poetry is that I can actually finish poems. Even when I’m not working in a straight narrative mode, I often idly wander, like a dog nosing the grass—it’s just my restless aesthetic at work. And I like to delight, to amuse, to be amused, to feel—stories are a good way to spur that.

Many of these poem stories, different in approach though they are, contain recurring images—wind, pianos, “hair,” to name a few. I thought of the natural world, which can be quite threatening in the “lands” of this book, and perhaps music as an attempt at organizing or playing back to that threat. Hair seems to implicate the human as animal, messy and chaotic. Do you see these recurring images as being connected to or signaling particular themes throughout the book? Are my interpretations anywhere near what you’re hoping to evoke?

You’re dead-on. And I love that observation about music serving as an ordering impulse.

Confession time: I wrote poetry for many years (my first book wasn’t published until I was 47) in the thrall of the idea of the reverential observer, cultivating this chiseled aesthetic that was part Basho, part Mary Oliver, part someone in a robe proclaiming, “We cannot see the wind, only its evidence.” As if one could just be a transparent eyeball strolling around, busting epiphanies. Tiresome stuff. But the poems kept offering these sardonic reminders that we’re not just heads floating above it all, we’re hugely destructive and implicated in this time where being alive means being at odds with nature, with our own bodies—and the work became more fraught and complex and weirdly funny as it mirrored that.

We’re imagining animals. We don’t need to transcend that. We need to own that, mine that, relax things with a little humor or absurdity, then prod a little deeper once those abdominal muscles relax. Because that’s authentic to the moment we find ourselves in—where our impoverished relationship with the natural worlds stems, at least in part, from the fact that we literally can’t imagine things otherwise.

I was struck by your focus on the human body, and in particular its potential mutilation—for example, the three poems in response to the car accident of “Coming Home,” the figurative “shrapnel” lodged in the brain in “Thought Grenade,” or the man who “unzipped himself from navel to sternum” in “The Dinner Party.” To me, these images sound a warning, reminding us of the damage humans can do to one another and to ourselves. How are you thinking about the body in these poems and throughout the book?

Slamming into a concrete divider at 70 mph is certainly instructive in teaching one about the fragility of meat and bone. The poems gained a sense of the body’s vulnerability from that moment out on the interstate, which was unfortunately an all-too-real occurrence. Yet we’re reminded everyday that our limbs can be awkward and imperfect and broken. We need to be careful with one another. As every year slips by, I value intelligence less and kindness much more. Kindness is the best way to liberate the wonderful stuff inside us without breaking the vessel open.

The title Our Lands Are Not So Different obviously has resonance in the current political climate of exclusion and division. How did you come to choose it, and how would you describe its reflection throughout the book? Has it changed at all in the months since you chose it?

I wrote that poem and chose the title nearly a decade ago, in the wake of a year where I lived with my family in central Mexico. It was a place where I spent a lot of time inside a new language and I was certainly culturally dislocated—yet I also felt inside my skin there and at home in a deep way. A lot of the work came out of the space, that straddling of home/not home, where it becomes clear that lines on a map are essentially false, arbitrary projections, yet they have utterly real consequences. We live in palpable unrealities.

Which is why in this current moment I think certain elements of our cultural mythology are in the midst of being resuscitated, interrogated and—perhaps—rewritten somewhat. It’s perhaps fitting the book’s coming out in this particular now, where for a lot of people what once felt like home has come to feel like an alternative reality or history, yet on the other hand we’re simply confronting things we should have always known about our country.

I see that you have a translation of the Mayan creation epic The Popul Vul coming out with Milkweed Editions. Did this project change your approach to your own work at all, particularly with respect to this book? If so, how?

That was a wild, wonderful, unexpected project that took me the better part of six years. I’ve always had a fondness for work in translation, the slight strangeness one can sometimes sense in the syntax or the language. Yet until I started doing it, I had no inkling of what I was getting into. I simply wanted a lucid verse translation of the myth that I could teach to my high school students. Immersing myself in it became a real joy, a slight obsession, and a total education—I ended up taking an unpaid leave from my teaching job for a semester to finish it.

One way I think the project did influence me is in how comfortable the myth is with burrowing back through time. It has no interest in being overly linear; instead it offers a sort of Russian-nesting-doll sort of structure, implying that straight-linear narrative structure is just false. Instead, you’ve got to find the beast, track it, and follow its print as it doubles back and perhaps begins stalking you…

The book ends with the poem “June,” which describes a woman trying on a coat in a second-hand shop (after first removing a stray hair belonging to the previous owner from its lapel) and imagining “an older version of herself walking through a park—.” The narrator of the poem provides a parallel description of the woman who last wore the coat before it came to the shop—“the face with the furrowed brow / that could fold and break into a lightning smile.” This seems to me to be a perfect evocation of the illusion of difference, or perhaps unacknowledged or unrealized kinship? What were your thoughts regarding ending the collection with this poem, and does the book’s ending point you toward a new project?

“…a perfect evocation of the illusion of difference, or perhaps unacknowledged or unrealized kinship.”

What an absolutely lovely reading! Slipping into a coat someone else has worn. Inhabiting it. Making it one’s own. Knowing it hasn’t always been so, knowing that it can’t be forever…

Your insight makes me feel like maybe the book has done its work. I won’t spoil the moment by saying more…

Thanks so much for these thoughtful questions!

Interviewer Anna Ross is the author of If a Storm (Anhinga Press) and the chapbooks Figuring (Bull City Press) and Hawk Weather (Finishing Line Press). She teaches in the Writing, Literature & Publishing program at Emerson College.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Literary Ventures: Krouna Writing Workshop

Welcome to Literary Ventures, a column where editor-in-chief Rebecca Morgan Frank talks to writers, editors, and entrepreneurs about their new literary ventures. Our first guest is novelist Henriette Lazaridis, founding editor of The Drum literary magazine and the newly launched Krouna Writing Workshop, which will take place this summer in Papingo, Greece.

Tell us about the Krouna Writing Workshop and why you started it.

I’ve been going to Papingo for almost my entire life, as it’s the village where my great-great-grandfather built the house the Krouna Writing Workshop takes place in. In recent years, I’ve been spending time there not just hiking but also sitting in the courtyard beneath the grape arbor, working on a manuscript. You don’t have to spend more than one day doing that to realize that it offers a great combination of inspiration and motivation—something I thought other writers would enjoy and benefit from. To me, Papingo is perfectly suited for a writing workshop. The courtyard is just right for small groups gathered around separate tables but in a shared communal space. The village is compact enough to make all attendees feel part of a community while also being able to explore within the cobbled streets or out into the mountains. But there’s a personal reason, too, for my starting the Krouna Writing Workshop. I’ve always wanted to show others how wonderful Papingo is, to make it possible for others to have those great days of hiking and writing and reading that I’ve enjoyed so often. In the last hundred years, the village has gone through many wars and has seen its population age and decline. But it has always proudly preserved its architecture and customs. I’m excited to be among the many Papingiotes helping to bring new life into the village and help it find its new incarnation as a center of art and creativity.

Where is Papingo, and what can writers expect to experience there?

Just an hour’s drive from the Ottoman-era city of Ioannina, Papingo is one of the most unique villages in Greece. Perched at an elevation of 3,000 feet, it’s bordered on one side by the cliffs of Astraka which rise to 8,000 feet, and on the other by the open view of waves of mountains all the way to the Ionian Sea. At one corner of the Astraka cliffs is Vikos Gorge, the deepest gorge in the world for its width and length. This is not the white-washed Greece of the islands, but the Balkan Greece, a gorgeous part of the country, full of mountains and valleys and a rich history of culture and, alas, conflict. To drive from Ioannina to Papingo6, you start in a city whose most prominent feature is a 17th-century minaret and wind through a valley where crucial battles of the Second World War took place. Papingo is in an area of Greece called the Zagori, where the villages prospered in the mid-19th century when the stone courtyard houses were built. The village hosts several inns and boutique hotels, tavernas, cafes, and a library, and there is even village-wide free wifi. In Papingo, writers will find themselves in a gorgeous natural setting of mountains, cliffs, and trout streams, with plenty of spots to relax and find calm and inspiration. And for those seeking activity during the KWW’s free time, there are paths and trails for running and hiking, a swimming hole in a limestone-cut stream, and more villages in the region to explore for their architecture and landscape and food.

Who are the faculty, and what will they be teaching?

21The Krouna Writing Workshop instructors are me, Henriette Lazaridis, and Daphne Kalotay. Daphne is the author of several works of fiction, including the story collection Calamity, and two novels, Russian Winter and Sight Reading.  I am the author of the novel The Clover House. You’ll find more detailed information about both of us on the website. I’ll be working primarily with novelists and Daphne with writers of short fiction.

Where can our readers find out more about the program or apply?

You can find out more about the workshop and how to apply at krounawritingworkshop.com. Writers completing an application by April 15, 2017 will receive a $250 tuition discount!

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Leslie Harrison

LHphotoLeslie Harrison’s second poetry collection, The Book of Endings, part of the Akron Series in Poetry, takes place in a space between the real world (where it’s usually winter), the imagination, language, art, and myth. The poems seem always to be trying to get to the bottom of things, and one of the pleasures of reading them is never knowing where they’ll end up, feeling the mind thinking as you go along. Lines often stutter and re-start: “For I have loved the blade with all my crippled / with all my awkward soul”; “for I have loved / Leviathan for being only for being exactly / what god hated” (“[Wilt thou play with him as with a bird]”). Haunted by ghosts, a mummy, Jesus, a lost mother, a lost love, and pre-lost children, The Book of Endings gives the sense that we need all of the answers—many truths as opposed to the Truth—to make sense of anything at all in this cold world; I kept thinking of Frost’s “momentary stay against confusion.” By the end of the book, the speaker, for better or worse, is setting sail.

Harrison is an NEA Fellow and the recipient of the 2008 Katharine Bakeless Nason Prize in poetry for her first book, Displacement (Mariner). Her poems have been widely published, in journals such as FIELD, The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and Memorious. A long-time resident of Sandisfield, Massachusetts, she now lives and teaches in Baltimore.

To me, the poems in The Book of Endings often seem like incantations, a way of killing the silence, staving off absence. They seem constantly struggling against confusion and unknowing—struggling to make the world mean. Would you describe them that way? Is there a better way?

Incantation—from the Latin incantare—to cast a spell upon, or to bewitch; it shares a root with enchantment. So wow, I hope so. I love that this is a word you want to use to describe the poems. I hope it is a true word, that they are even a little like that. So many poems have spellbound me. Ambition and generosity—what others have done I wish to do; let me give to you, dear reader, what someone once gave to me.

And yes, I’ll talk more in a bit about trying to make the world mean, but first the silence question. There are different kinds of silence. Some of them I love. I don’t have TV in my house, and lately I’m not listening to music. I live with two dogs, one of whom is deaf. And one of the things I struggle with now, living in a city, is how damned noisy it is all the time. Sandisfield was so quiet you could hear a raven flying overhead from inside your house. I love that kind of silence.

But when someone dies, a very particular silence infects your life. My mother was in pain toward the end of her life, and mostly confined to her house. So she and I would talk nearly every day, sometimes for hours. We probably spent 10-20 hours a week on the phone toward the end. I grew up with a single parent. My father vanished when I was a baby. We were poor—on welfare, living in the projects. She kept us safe and fed and entertained and taught us to read and bake and ride bikes and play poker (which we did, by the way, with Tootsie Rolls or pennies). My mother was my whole world, and we were close for all her life.

So one way of thinking about the way the poems work is that her death brought a kind of inhuman (and inhumane) silence into my world, and I think the poems are indeed trying desperately not to end, not to fall into silence, even for the space of a period, a comma. They’re me talking into the void, trying to calm myself, trying not to panic.

And yes, the poems absolutely do want to be stays against all sorts of things—confusion, grief, silence, and the terrible sense I have that the world is arbitrary and random and does not mean, in fact, can not mean.

I gave up writing poems in college in part because language seemed so useless, so completely inadequate. When I came back to writing, it was with full knowledge that I would fail, that language is inadequate, that the most I can do is hold back silence, stay confusion for a moment before it all collapses back into chaos. But if I could create moments of trying to make things make sense, or at least make music and beauty and consolation, then it was worth the daily failures.

So even if the world is arbitrary and random, we, the world’s artists, have to try. That is, I think, the work of the artist—to try to speak the world into moments of sense or order or beauty. I think of Olena Kalytiak Davis quoting Vincent Van Gogh, “I have tried / to express the terrible passions / of humanity by means of red and green.” Language is red and green.

Your epigraph is from Heather McHugh’s poem “Etymological Dirge,” which is about unintuitive etymologies, for example in the line “Calm comes from burning. / Tall comes from fast”: the word “tall” comes from the Old English getæl, meaning “prompt, active,” and “calm” from the ancient Greek kaiein which means “to burn.” Coincidentally, I’ve been walking around listening to this Bill Bryson book The Origin of Language (N.B. Bill Bryson books are perfect for listening to while walking or driving—the right pace, the right concentration of information). That book reminds us of things like the fact that the words “brave” and “bravado” mean exactly opposite things—and that both come from “depraved.” I love remembering about the mutability of language—that words are sort of there for the making and taking. It’s liberating. Anyway! The mutability, the possibilities, and the impossibilities of language come up quite a bit throughout your book, for example in “[I keep throwing words at the problem because words]” and “[What I mean].” Is this a preoccupation of yours as well? Could you speak to it a little bit? Maybe I should say it better this way: could you tell us why you chose that epigraph, or what books you were reading, or what your preoccupations were, as you wrote these poems—essentially, where they came from?

Ha! You and me and Heather McHugh—don’t you just love language sometimes? Because, yes, it might be a blunt instrument, but it is ours and it does do things.

I love that poem. I memorized it a while ago, and I say it like a rosary sometimes, quietly, to myself. It has become a talisman, a way to acknowledge language’s mystery, power, and elusive nature. A part of me just wanted to say thank you to Heather. I can’t thank Shakespeare or Auden or Berryman or Bishop or Frost or Bogan. But where I have the opportunity to tell a poet how much their work matters to me, I try.

But also (as you say below) the entire quatrain but especially the final two lines gesture quite strongly to a lot of my obsessions as they play out in the book. It says,

Afford yourself what you can carry out.
A coward and a coda share a word.
We get our ugliness from fear.
We get our danger from the lord.

I tell my students that prose writers believe they can say things with words. They spend sometimes 70,000 or 80,000 words saying things. Poets (or at least this one) know that words can’t really say anything. Sometimes they can gesture toward capturing something, but really, language is so inadequate—it changes shape, morphs, its roots are obscured in its branches and it is composed mostly of water— and we say, “I love you” to a mother and the same thing to a beloved and we say, “I love tea.” And they’re three very different things. So yes, I’m a bit obsessed with etymology, with the efficacy and failures of language, with its shifty, clouded nature, its odd lineage.

I don’t think most of us think about it, but I’m well pleased I write in English. It is such a strange mash-up and portmanteau and thief.

Formally, these breathless, unpunctuated poems—each about a page—are pretty different from those in your first book, Displacement, which are shorter and more tightly controlled, punctuated, organized into regular stanzas (although there are hints toward the end of the book that things are trending towards entropy—not that it is ever, of course, entropy. It’s all craft!). How did you arrive at this new form? How does it function, for you?

True story: I thought I had a brain injury.

The formal change happened overnight. I woke up and punctuation was just gone. I literally didn’t use a piece of punctuation again in a poem, barring apostrophes, until quite recently, and then only once, and only a little bit. I’d write and not be able to punctuate. I’d write and not be able to stick two lines together. It made me crazy to see a string of couplets or tercets and I’d be like, NO! nonononono. If I was drafting and didn’t put the stanza break in, I couldn’t go on until I corrected it. (I’m also weirdly allergic to regular multi-line stanzas in other people’s work; I see a poem in stanzas and I have to fight my desire to stop reading.)

I’m in a totally dysfunctional relationship with punctuation. It’s just not that into me. And multi-line stanzas are over me in a big way.

It isn’t really even a choice, which is why I thought I had a brain injury. So the question of how it functions is a little like asking how my lungs work. I have no idea, but I’m super-grateful to be breathing.

And I expect it to end (the form, not the breathing thing, though, yeah, eventually that too, I guess). I’ve come to believe it is tied to something I’m working out, something I’m dealing with in both language and content.

I’m a weirdly intuitive writer; I don’t want to look too closely at both what I’m doing and how the poems work, because I tend to lose interest in things I think I understand. I could list current obsessions—the sea, especially shipwrecks, the photographs of Ray Collins, huge waves and the men who surf them; the pieces of language we all recognize (childhood games, the wedding ceremony, some psalms, some prayers); knives and blades of all sorts; horses, owls, all birds really; trees; really old living things; glass; rectangles; Hiroshige prints, and certain physical talismans, like a Lego minifigure I often carry around. And I can’t tell you why I love and pay attention to any of them. If I knew, they’d lose their power, like a question the world actually answered for once. And I think the form that shapes the poems is like that—a question I don’t have an answer to, though I may, in time.

I will say I have part of a collection of prose poems about a shape-shifter that has a much more conventional relationship with punctuation. So something is going on and it relates to the content of these particular poems. And when I’m done, I think I’ll be able to move on.

So far though, I’ve got another 32 decent drafts, and 26 rougher drafts toward a new book, and all of them follow the same form, though some are getting longer and some shorter.

The Book of Endings is a triptych—divided into Left, Right, and Center sections—evoking Christian art and altarpieces. Moving through the book, I felt like I was like opening up a painting: first the left panel, then the right, and then seeing the whole picture. Would you tell us a little bit about why you divided the book this way?

BofEI’m so glad the structure is visible in that way! Once I discovered the structure, the book was actually titled Triptych. It was months after it was under contract that I figured out the real title. Then I still had “A Triptych” as a sort-of subtitle. In production we let it fade away, and I was concerned it wouldn’t be read the way you read it, so I’m happy that is still visible. What is that O’Hara poem? “Why I Am Not a Painter.” It makes me laugh because I
did that—I erased almost all of the genesis of the structure of the book. Maybe the book’s real title was Sardines or Oranges.

I think a lot of writers will recognize this frustration: I couldn’t order the book. For years. Displacement was easier—there is a buried narrative in that book—a beginning, middle, and end. But it turned out that knowing how to order that book is not the same as knowing how to order a book.

How did it come to me? It feels a little like something an old photography teacher said to me when I described a classmate as lucky. The teacher said that you have to put yourself in the way of luck. Get out there; do the work; be prepared for luck, and recognize it when it happens along.

I love art, especially painting and early Japanese woodblocks. I have a weird aptitude for theory. I read philosophy. I am a little obsessed with lapis lazuli. I have a AAA membership (TripTiks!). I love architecture. I studied art history a fair bit. I am an obsessive reader. I can’t, for example, point to what I was reading during the writing of the book—on a slow week I’m reading 8-10 books at once.

All of those were swirling around. I was teaching a poetics class and thinking about the tripartite structure of argument credited most recently to Hegel (who credits Kant), but really it’s much older—thesis, antithesis, synthesis. And I was reading a lot of theology and yes, looking at early Christian alter pieces, which are often triptychs—threes being a thing in Christianity—and trying to figure out why Mary was often dressed in blue (lapis lazuli!).

And suddenly, I realized the book was a triptych.

Once I had that bolt out of the blue, I ordered the book in about 20 minutes. And for those of you trying to place a manuscript, I can say that I sent it out a lot before I ordered it and it was kicked to the curb over and over again. I sent it out with the final order just 4 times. It was a finalist but not picked by the judge all four times. And Mary Biddinger at Akron selected it for the Editor’s choice. And a couple of the other editors where it was a finalist lamented that it got away, which is a lovely thing to hear, even if I don’t entirely believe it.

My lesson was that, for the next book, I should not beat my head against a very hard wall in frustration, not send the book out until I’m sure it is ready. Do the work, be patient, and listen to what the book wants to be. And (not that I needed the reinforcement) keep reading, looking at art, doing research, teaching—put myself in the way of the luck, the happy insight that might make the difference.

There are many allusions to religion and Christianity throughout the book—in the epigraph, in the structure, in poems like “[God speaks]”, “[Take, eat]”, “[Parable]” (which appears twice), and many more. Greek mythology, too, saturates this book—Sisyphus, Penelope, Sirens—and your last. What role do myth and religion play in your writing process, in your everyday thinking?

Religion, myth, and folklore are all systems of information, systems of knowledge by which cultures attempt to order and explain the world. But they’re also a weird and amazing kind of cultural shorthand. Most people know who Icarus was, who Penelope was. So it is efficient to drop a mythological figure into a poem. You don’t have to explain.

I studied Greek and Roman mythology in college. In grad school I did an independent study in folklore with a very well known folklorist. I am of course fascinated with language and with ritual. And I am obsessed with metaphor. It’s a bit old-fashioned these days, to love beauty and metaphor, but I do. Mythology is also a system of metaphor—metaphor and mimesis are why such systems persist. And sometimes they’re really plausible, like Aristotle believing in spontaneous generation.

As for Christianity, that is a more complicated thing. All of what I just said still applies—I’m fascinated by the stories of Christianity, and the ritual language associated with it. The writing in the Bible, especially the King James, is gorgeous.

My mother died. And then my grandmother died, and then my best friend. In two years. And in that time I also ended an intense relationship, and a couple of close friendships faltered. I spent nine days alone in the dark after an ice storm, and had a serious health scare. People started to joke about my life resembling Job’s. And Job is one of the strangest books in the Bible. In part, I think it is an attempt to account for suffering. So it did resonate with me. And it created one of my ongoing obsessions—Leviathan (not Hobbes’s, though that book does have a very famous triptych frontispiece).

People talk about the stages of grief, and they’re not wrong. At some point after my mother died, I found myself angry. But I had nobody to be angry at—she had fought hard to live, so I couldn’t be mad at her. So I ended up deflecting a lot of my anger toward this particular system. My thinking went like this: if God exists, he is either not omnipotent, in which case, why bother, or he is unbelievably cruel and deserves my anger. If he doesn’t exist, then being angry with him is a kind of healthy outlet.

So a lot of the poems that are directly or indirectly interested in Christianity were born out of that sea—of grief and attempts (past and present), yet again, to make things make either beauty or sense.

In Displacement, we have “Instructions to a Realtor” about moving into a house, and in The Book of Endings, we have “[Things the realtor will not tell the new owner]” (one of my favorite poems in the book). What’s with these realtors?   

They’re agents of change, aren’t they? I’ve moved over 50 times, and I am obsessed with the idea of home because, basically, I never had one. But then I bought my little house in Sandisfield.

Those two poems are sort of an alpha and omega of my time in the only home I’ve ever had. Weirdly, both poems were very late additions to the books—probably the last poem I put in each book. In the most recent one, I was in the process of trying to sell the house, as I’d gotten a job in Baltimore and had to leave. I knew I’d take so many memories, but I wondered if the house and the creatures I encountered daily would remember me. How did all my encounters with hungry bears (that is redundant, since bears are composed mostly of hunger) change the bear or live in its memory? I saw the same trees, the same creatures, windows and walls daily for a decade. I watched generations of phoebes fledge from the nest in the bathroom eaves, saw deer, goose families who came annually to the lake to raise new goslings, woodpeckers, coyotes—the list is long. And I was so damned grateful for the house, its shelter and light and quiet.

I wondered what of me the house would keep. The trees and animals and the house, which shaped my days and nights for a decade—would they notice my absence? I wanted, very much, for the house to remember me, though perhaps not quite as sadly as the poem says. There was dancing there. And gratitude. And a staring contest with a swan. Misadventures with fences and wasps. And being way too close to too many bears. And the songs of the coyotes. And the milky way overhead like I’ve never seen it anywhere else—a bright ribbon of light. Moons and meteors and a comet and eclipse and every dawn and every dusk for a decade.

And then the realtors sold my house to someone else, and for the first time in my life, I left home.

Interviewer Sarah Trudgeon is the recipient of the 2015 Poetry Society of America 30 and Under Chapbook Fellowship for her collection Dreams of Unhappiness, selected and introduced by Don Paterson. Her poems have appeared in the London Review of Books, The Nation, The Paris Review, The TLS, and the anthology Eight Miami Poets. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the MFA program at the University of Florida, she serves as managing editor of Sink Review and director of the Writing-in-Schools program Mastheads Fireside.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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(Non-)Fiction Spotlight: Contributor Peter Orner

Peter Orner is the author of several books, including the novels The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo (Little, Brown) and Love and Shame and Love (Little, Brown), and the short story collections Esther Stories (Back Bay) and Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge (Back Bay). He has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Lannan Foundation Literary Fellowship, and a Fulbright to Namibia. Orner’s fiction and non-fiction have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, The Paris Review, Memorious 20, and many, many other publications.

His most recent book, Am I Alone Here? (Catapult), is a collection of non-fiction essays. Each essay focuses on a favorite book of Orner’s and features an illustration of the book’s cover drawn by his brother, Eric. Am I Alone Here? is a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. After all, it’s a book about books and about reading, but it’s also a stunning memoir that uses these books as access points to ruminate on being a son, a husband, and a father. Orner graciously agreed to answer our questions, and talk a bit about his wonderfully unclassifiable new collection.

First, congratulations on the National Book Critics Circle award nomination for best book of criticism! Am I Alone Here? is so delightfully hard to classify, though. Do you consider this work criticism?

I’m not sure. I’ve never been that hung up on labels. I only ever think: is this thing I’m doing fiction or non-fiction? If it is non-fiction, I take care not to make things up. But I’ve always been drawn to books that defy classifiability. Jean Toomer’s Cane is on my desk right now, as it always is. Is it fiction, poetry? Philosophy? A weird short novel? All these things? Or take a book like Calvino’s Invisible Cities. What is it? A collection of strange un-stories? A meditation? A fantastical manual of architectural and city planning possibilities? What is it? I don’t care, I just want to read it. So, I guess I like the idea of a piece of work being what it happens to turn out to be, which of course will be different depending on the reader. Maybe all books should have some element of un-classifiability?

I realized halfway through this book that unlike other writers writing about fiction—think Robert Boswell, Charles Baxter, Frank O’Connor—the personal isn’t working in service of the literary, but rather the other way around. Or so it seems to me. Do you feel like you were using fiction to make sense of your life, or using your life to make sense of fiction?

I’m not sure if fiction so much helps me make sense of my life as it does muddle my sense of my life even more. As it should be. I get very suspicious of anybody—or any book—that claims any real answers to this chaos we wake up to every morning.

You write that Frank O’Connor’s The Lonely Voice is one of the few books about short stories you’ve “ever been able to stomach much.” When writing this book—or even your Rumpus posts—were there certain approaches you tried to imitate? Others you tried to avoid?

I appreciate O’Connor’s old book because his approach is that of a guy who every day tries to write a good story. The view of a practitioner in the trenches. He respects the mystery. He’s also cantankerous and irritable and reverent and irreverent. All these things—he’s definitely a hero to me. Bolaño, I find his essays just wonderful. I like them better than some of his fiction. When he writes essays he never needs an editor. There were a lot of approaches I tried to avoid. In particular, I’m not a big fan of writing about writing that comes from on high. You know what I mean? A kind of know-it-all approach to writing about the work of other people. If there’s a whiff of pretension—and too often there’s a lot more than a whiff—I usually start running away.

I find the way you situate yourself in the telling of these stories fascinating, particularly the use of time markers like “yesterday,” “last week,” “as I sit here,” etc.; so often the essays are presented as if they’re being written in real time. Why was it important as you edited this book to retain that sense of present telling?

Though I re-write and I re-write—sometimes in my head if not on paper—I always do try and keep in mind where I was, what I was doing, when I first began to think about something. And I often do write on the move. In the car, on a bike, walking. Motion joggles my brain. And I always try as you say to retain that moment in a re-write. It’s a way, I guess, of trying to stay a little true to the original impulse of a piece.

In “Upper Moose Lake, 1990” you write “There are certain rare books…Finishing is agony because you know you will never again read this book for the first time.” I devoured Am I Alone Here? from the introduction to the acknowledgments, and like your twenty-two-year-old self who agonizes over finishing Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, I didn’t want it to end. I wish I had taken the time to read each piece discretely and ruminated on it before moving to the next. How much of this project relies on the cumulative effect of the book? Or have you designed this collection so that it can be accessed from any point?

Like a lot of writers, I sweat the order of the pieces so much—and then people of course (I do it too) go and read it out of order. There should be criminal penalties for this! I’ll be the first to turn myself in. But cumulative effect is what I’m always after whether it’s here in an essay collection, or a novel, or a book of stories. The parts should stand alone but the whole should mean something different, more, I hope.

Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions! As you might know, our audience is made up of some voracious readers, so we’re often recommending books. Will you share with us a book you recently agonized over finishing?

Ah, thank you very much, Sara, for being such a generous, open reader. I agonized over finishing John Edgar Wideman’s Writing to Save a Life: The Louis Till File, a remarkable book that can’t be categorized. Another one of these books that cracks open any notion of genre because it is too busy being whatever it is, which is an indictment, a heart-crushing story, a beautiful unearthing of buried truths, and a lot of other things.

Interviewer Sara A. Lewis is Interim Editor of Memorious and Managing Editor of the Memorious blog. She has been an Assistant Editor for the Mississippi Review, and she earned her doctorate from The University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers.

Editor’s Note: Peter Orner and Sara A. Lewis are aware that “classifiability” is not a word. We went with it anyway.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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In Memoriam: Fuck Whale

Memorious is excited to introduce our new column, “In Memoriam,” in which a writer pays tribute to the memory of something or someone now gone.  For our first post, fiction writer and poet David Ebenbach tackles the complexities of (that’s right) Fuck Whale.

220px-david_ebenbach_005Do you know the story of Brigadoon? It’s a movie, actually, and the way it goes is that two Americans wandering through Scotland happen across a town called Brigadoon, a magical town that appears once every hundred years and only for a single day, after which it disappears again.

Fuck Whale was sort of like that.

When I was a junior in college I spent a semester abroad in Strasbourg, France. My reasons for choosing Strasbourg were vague and, in retrospect, not extremely compelling. Number one: I felt that, as a college student, I was expected to study abroad. Number two: I had some knowledge of French. (Specifically, I had studied it in high school but not at all since, which meant that I couldn’t speak the language, and my recognition skills were such that I could usually recognize whether a person was speaking French or not, but didn’t know what they were saying.) Number three: my Ohio college ran a study abroad program in Strasbourg.

So, I went, and, although I found good friends among my fellow students, I was still mopey and homesick pretty much the entire time. For most of my life, I had lived in one place—the inner-city neighborhood of West Philadelphia—and so even Ohio had been foreign to me; Strasbourg was another planet. Plus I was very, very, broke. In order to save money that semester I skipped so many meals (and the student meals were only like two dollars each, somehow) that I lost ten pounds. Plus I was actively pining, because I was in a long-distance relationship with a woman who did not, I think, realize that we were in a relationship at all.

Well, I tried to keep myself busy. I did a lot of journal-writing that semester, and I also took a lot of pictures. In particular, I took pictures of graffiti. I think the graffiti reassured this West Philly kid in the same way that a beautiful mountain range would have reassured a person from, what, Colorado? Maybe. It was familiar, is my point.

There was great graffiti in Strasbourg. Some of it was stenciled and layered and actively beautiful, but the bare-bones freehand stuff was pretty charming, too. Most of the graffiti was in French, of course, like “Quand on est mort, on peut difficilement se beurrer une tartine” (i.e., “When one is dead, it is difficult to butter toast”) and “FAITES CACA PARTOUT” (“Make caca everywhere”). So, that was good motivation for me to learn French. But there was also a little graffiti in English, such as in one half of this mini-debate about public transportation that I found on a wall:

NON AU TRAMWAY!” (“No to the Tramway!”)

“Tramway it is a better machine.”

So, public discourse across linguistic barriers. Even better, at one point that semester, when I was in an underground tunnel in Berlin, I came across “WEST PHILLY 89” written on one wall.

But nothing beat Fuck Whale. Or, I should say: “FUCK WHALE,” spray-painted freehand in black letters on a wall somewhere in the center of Strasbourg. But I mean it when I say “somewhere”—I didn’t seem to be able to find that wall on purpose. I would search and search through all the weird zigzag streets and not find it, especially when I wanted to show one of my friends in the study abroad program. But then, when I particularly needed it (say, on an especially homesick night), I would stumble across Fuck Whale. Out of nowhere, there it would be, like Brigadoon.

It was always a reassuring sight, even though (or maybe because) I didn’t know what the thing meant. Was it an expletive? (e.g., after hitting thumb with hammer: “Fuck whale!”) Or was it advice? Was it a smackdown of a particular whale? Was it actually a species that I’d never heard of? Who knew? Fuck Whale was a beautiful graffiti mystery.

fw1

A very young David Ebenbach

One thing I felt sure of: Whoever had spray-painted those words had what is commonly called joie de vivre (i.e., “not homesick”). I wanted joie de vivre, too. And if I couldn’t have it (I couldn’t), I wanted to be near it, spray-painted on a wall.

And so the semester went like that. I wrote in my journal; I traveled a little bit, as cheaply as possible; I skipped meals; I checked my mailbox constantly for letters from the woman I probably wasn’t dating; I took pictures; the city of Strasbourg moved from winter to spring; I learned some French. And eventually I did figure out where Fuck Whale was. I could get to it reliably when I wanted to. By then—the end of the semester—it was like visiting a former teacher for new wisdom. Though actually the wisdom was always the same:

FUCK WHALE, it would say.

TOTALLY, I would say in return.

In the end, I survived that semester, of course. I returned to the United States with enthusiasm (joie?) that was only slightly dampened by two initial encounters: one with an angry customs official, who was incredulous that I’d spent a semester in France because, if I’d wanted to learn French, I should have done it in America since “we’ve got better schools,” and then my first sighting of a t-shirt with the English language on it, which read Hangin’ and Bangin’. But anyway I made it, and I got on with my life. I was still pretty mopey (i.e., “mild depression that would ultimately respond nicely to therapy and some helpful pills”), but I was mopey at home, and that was nice.

screen-shot-2016-12-29-at-9-29-51-pmI have thought of Fuck Whale from time to time over the ensuing years. I still don’t know what it means. I still love it. And when, recently, a student of mine told me she was about
to spend a semester abroad in Strasbourg, of course I told her to look for Fuck Whale. But then she got back and told me she had never been able to find it.

More than twenty years has gone by since my own semester abroad, so the most likely thing is that someone has blasted the words off that wall. But I like to think that Fuck Whale has only temporarily vanished. That it will reappear one day, if ever there is someone wandering through that city, lost and glum, someone who’s missing something undefinable but crucial, someone who really needs it.

David Ebenbach lives in Washington, DC, where he teaches at Georgetown University. His fiction collections include Between Camelots (winner of the Drue Heinz Literature Prize) and Into the Wilderness. He has also published poetry collections, We Were the People Who Moved and Autogeography, and a collection of essays, The Artist’s Torah. He’s the Fiction Vice President at Washington Writers’ Publishing House and the blog editor at AGNI. His new fiction collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy, winner of the Juniper Prize for Fiction, is out now from the University of Massachusetts Press. 

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Poetry Spotlight: Contributor Jacques J. Rancourt

Jacques J. Rancourt is an Issue 26 contributor and winner of the Pleiades Lena-Miles Wever Todd Prize for Poetry. His debut collection, Novena, is a coming-of-age and a coming out. Wresting a fractured identity from the past and making of it a gift for the beloved—and for the reader—Novena seeks redemption, wholeness.

Strapped to the “[c]lutched mast” of his ship, Rancourt’s Odysseus in “Song for the Homebound Men” is restrained against the allure of naked male sirens. The tension between the boat’s orientation (the straight, homebound narrative) and the sailor’s orientation (a queer veering, homosexual) runs throughout the collection. It’s dominated by the speaker’s outdoorsman father, by a patriarchal violence the speaker feels exiled by even as he resembles and reveres it. The product of such bound longing is song, of course, “a music box the wind tips open.” But what kind of song? Faith and prayer, myth, nature, role models, and all the other “standards hitherto publish’d” (to quote Whitman)—none of it will do, yet none of it can be done without.

Novena forges a new, unsanctioned song from the materials. “Sing unto the Lord a new song,” the Psalms decree. In the first of two “Novena” cycles, the speaker prays to a drag queen Mary to “[m]ove my lips until I believe / a man can kiss a man like this.”

Can you talk about your need for and use of neologism, at least in the sense of using conventional words unconventionally? Might this be related to the speaker’s acknowledged lack of adequate language with which to say what he means? I noticed neologism especially in the “Novena” cycles, such as “a sprout clouts her cleft” or “pummel and surge coarse my throat.”

My father is Quebecois, and my early introductions to language were garbled with roughly-pronounced Franglais phrases. Even to this day, lines come to me from the occasion of mishearing bits of dialogue or misreading lines in novels. I’m intrigued by what I think I hear or see that the actual meanings of these sentences often disappoint me. This is an experience I’ve tried to replicate in my poems. It’s a way of allowing sound to drive sense, despite having a narrative backbone to most of my poems. It allows a bit of my private world into the poems.

Can you talk about your experience publishing and the journey of the first book?

Like most poets, I sent my book out too early. I felt that because the poems themselves were done that their sum meant the book was publishable. I had no sense of the book’s structure, of the story it wanted to tell, or how to tell it. The first time I sent it out, I had the weird luck of being named a finalist for a dream contest. And then for the next two years, I received nothing but a solid flow of form rejection letters. It wasn’t until after that—after I had written some better poems, took out others that I was holding onto for superficial reasons—I went back to ground zero and restructured the whole book. Only then did I finally understand what each and every poem accomplished in the greater movement of the book. I read somewhere that you know a book is done when it feels that if you were to take out or add in just one more poem, the whole structure would topple; I think that’s as good as any advice I’ve heard on the matter. It would take another three years for the book to be taken, but I knew that it was done and that if I made any more drastic edits, I would only end up dowsing its spark. I had to trust my gut—and not the contest model—that it was done and to give myself permission to keep working on the next project.

The speaker in Novena grew up in what might be called the country. Where, specifically, did you grow up, and to what degree do your neopastoral motifs come from actual experience with “nature”? Part of the reason I ask is because, as you’ve probably noticed, foxes, wolves, and horses seem to show up in everybody’s poetry these days, country or no.

Before I was born, my father built an off-the-grid cabin in western Maine, and so I spent many of my formative years on the foot of a mountain playing by myself in the Appalachian woods. When I give readings, I do sometimes feel a compulsion to clarify that once a baby fawn really did lick my hand while I was jogging through the forest, or that one winter we really did find a barred owl frozen in the rafters of our wood shed. But ultimately, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, for Novena, is how far removed the speaker is from an urban gay utopia. He is isolated spiritually in a dangerous pastoral that’s rife with animals and hunters. This lens is key to understanding not only Novena but also a part of the larger gay narrative that’s spoken less of these days.

There’s a different type of closeting that occurs in the rural parts of America, which feels mostly like they’re held back in the 80’s or 90’s still. The media and even the gay narrative wants to propose that we (the queers) have been pushed beyond that and assimilated fully into the fabric of the mainstream. And yet, you go into the outreaching places of the country, and more than just the fact that coming out is still a life-risking act, there’s the pervasive toxic masculine culture that prevails there. In poems such as “American Shrapnel” and “Field,” I wanted to write toward that toxicity, to the places that have been left behind, and the sharp shred of fear implanted in all the young people who grow up there. My hope was that Novena would capture both the beauty and tenderness and oppression and fear that coincides in these communities far from the cities.

Who is the Deerman? He seems somewhat demonic, satyrlike.

Part of the project of the title sequence was to recreate a mythology: I recast the Virgin Mary as a drag queen as a way of writing a love poem that would give hope to the queer outcast but highly devout kid I was as a teenager. She represents a sort of an aloof chaste compassion, merging both divisive parts of the speakers’ identity—his faith and his queerness. The Deerman serves as her foil: a brute masculine sexuality that, at one point, literally eats the speaker up.

Where do you think you’d be as a poet without your presumably Catholic upbringing?

My family wasn’t particularly literary—or in some cases, even literate—but they were deeply religious. We studied theology in lieu of studying hard history or science (a concept that scares the hell out of me now). It did, however, instill in me the weight of symbolism, the endless interpretations and literary analysis that drives theology. When I was a teen, I used to drive hours to go to the Cathedral in Portland where in its crypt they’d hold the “Dead Theologians Society.” These conversations would be as close to poetry or literary conversations I’d have until I got to college. Even now, when I scan my lines for meter or rhythm, I trace how much I learned about syntax from these religious texts or rote prayers.

Novena’s speaker seems anxious about predecessors, and in particular about his father. He struggles to claim an identity separate from him. These concerns can’t but make me think of Harold Bloom’s anxiety of influence (you even kill off the father at the end). Who are the poetic parents and peers you’re split from?

I can’t help but think of Bloom’s theory as being part of a queer aesthetic. In Gay World, anxiety surrounding a rupture between generations is par for the course. Coming out has historically meant estrangement, and attempting to maintain a connection or severing that connection with family is one of the defining decisions in a gay person’s life—second only to coming out in the first place. I am interested more, though, in your question of poetic lineage, which is something I always ask my students to consider. I had a teacher who found it terribly important that a poet be able to “place themselves” in the larger conversation of who came before them. I feel a strong impulse and even obligation to recognize in the work itself those who came before and paved the way, who made the work possible in the first place. There are poems (I won’t name which) that are direct tributes to other gay poets as a way of acknowledging the path they’ve blazed and the opportunity they’ve created.

Originally from Alabama, interviewer Austin Segrest writes and teaches at Lawrence University in west-central Wisconsin, just south of Green Bay (up the north-flowing Fox). He reviews poetry for Southern Humanities Review. His poems have recently appeared in Image, Ecotone, and Grist.

For original poetry, fiction, art song and art, please visit our magazine at www.memorious.org.

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