ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION ON DEAF POETICS

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  • September 8, 2018

Editor’s Note:

After we have published our first Roundtable Discussion on Poetics And Disability earlier this year, we have received many encouraging  e-mails, and requests to continue this series.

In this second installment, our participants (Karen Christie, John Lee Clark and Lilah Katcher)  ask: what does it mean to be a deaf or DeafBlind or hard of hearing poet in America today? what are the implications for one’s poetics? What might “mainstream” world discover about itself and its delivery and teaching of poetry – if it considers itself from the perspective of a DeafBlind poet, for instance?

“They may find they have to do it in a completely different way,” John Lee Clark suggests. “They may find that they need to throw away the big conference table in the middle of the room that they take so much for granted.”

Indeed. The larger world that views deaf poets as those creating in “silence” might be surprised that Deaf don’t believe in silence. It is the creation of the hearing.

Those who claim to accommodate the deaf people, might be surprised by the very many distinctions among deaf people: There is a great tradition of Deaf poets (Deaf with a capital D) who are a part of the beautiful and very varied Deaf culture and tradition and who create poetry in their own language, ASL. Although ASL poetry is incredibly rich and diverse, it is not very well known to the literary, AWP-going crowd. (American literary community seems to pride itself on its multicultural approach. Yet, the reality is: it is not that open to poetics of other languages. Some of the best American poets create in ASL. They might be our neighbors, might live down the street from us, yet their poetry is unavailable to most poetry readers due to this language barrier. This needs to change.)

What’s ASL poetry like–and how can any poetry exists in the absence of sound? a reader of this forum might ask.

Karen Christie, who studied ASL poetry for many years, responds:

“While people from Hearing culture would want to look for the lack of sound or sound images in the works of Deaf poets, I think they would be surprised to find how much rhythm is there. In ASL poems, we have rhythms of repeated signed handshapes, rhythms in our use of space, and powerful rhythms in the movements of signs.”

Then, there are poets, who are Deaf but write in English, living on a border between two languages. Then, there are DeafBlind poets, who might be familiar with ASL, but they create poetry in their own language, living in the trilingual space and creating something altogether new.

Then, of course, there are 466 million of  hard-of-hearing (one of every ten humans on this planet) who drift in and out of what others call silence. This is a state I myself know from personal experience: the existence on the border between hearing and non-hearing. A world in which silence is both a metaphor and fact of life.

There is no end to the subtleties of this world. And, that is its beauty.

How to fit all of this into the mainstream world of the hearing? a reader might wonder.

“I am sorry, but so many of us are just not interested in fitting in. Indeed, we cannot. Instead, we are interested in collaboration,” responds John Lee Clark. “We are interested in changing the world.”

Indeed: poetry is always an act of transformation. We, at Poetry International Online, hope this second installment of our ongoing Roundtable Discussion on Poetics and Disability will continue the conversation that began earlier this year. If you missed our first Roundtable, you may find it at this link. Thank you for reading.

— Ilya Kaminsky

 
1) What does it mean to be a Deaf, DeafBlind or hard of hearing poet in America today?

Karen Christie: To me, being a Deaf poet living in the US at this time in history means the impulse to write becomes an act of ARTivism.  Frequent attacks on the freedom of artistic expression, the press, and the civil liberties particularly of disenfranchised peoples means poetry is sometimes the only way for me to deal with injustice and feelings of hopelessness, powerlessness.  And poetry, being poetry, has also lead me to expressions of joy, affirmation, and hope.  It also means claiming myself as a Deaf woman, as a poet who writes in English, but only because I have ASL.  Segueing into the next question, it means that for a Deaf person  creating poetry is an act of resistance.  Deaf folks have historically been viewed ‘languageless’ or at least inferior in terms of using language for communicating thoughts, ideas, and feelings.  Without directly addressing it, our poetry, whether in English or ASL, becomes a weapon which challenges these attitudes.

John Lee Clark: First of all, being a DeafBlind poet means that, for my upcoming fortieth birthday, you should give me a gift card from Target, not Barnes and Noble. I have no use for a bookstore except for the Godiva chocolate bars they sometimes sell. It’s just that those bars are cheaper at Target and I’d get more of the good stuff that way.

It also means reading very little contemporary poetry. This isn’t the space to go into detail as to why, but suffice it to say that no one responsible seems to care about Braille readers and poetry. My main source of poetry reading material is Project Gutenberg. It’s the easiest, most accessible. I urge you to donate money to support it, it’s a vital resource.

I’m always startled when someone reads a poem of mine and says it reminds them of Frank O’Hara or Robert Lowell. I haven’t read those poets, they haven’t been dead for the required ninety years. What I could see in that poem of mine is the hand of G. K. Chesterton, say, or Christina Rossetti.

It’s strange, because to be a poet is a very DeafBlind thing. DeafBlind poets go back to at least the fifteenth century. True, true, there wasn’t another one, not that I know of, until the eighteenth century. But a start is a start. The wonderful part is that we have such a rich literature. The tragic part is that distantism has something to do with the outpouring. A. F. Moritz once defined a poet as someone who turns isolation into solitude. We’ve always coped, and very well too, to being locked out of much of society. Our books, letters, diaries, and knitted goods bear witness to that experience.

As usual, it’s more complicated than that. Our community began to form in the second half of the nineteenth century when Morrison Heady and Laura Bridgman developed the practice of writing letters to any of us they could find. Distantism was too strong and our resources were too limited for us to build a corporeal community, so the way to go was to create a viretual one. Sure, everyone back then wrote letters. Print culture reigned supreme. But we made our network of correspondence do more for us than writing did for anyone else. We invented online dating a long, long time ago. You wrote letters, you fell in love, and when the time is right, you go by stagecoach then by rail. A week later you propose.

So it’s not true that we write so much out of the marginalization we experience out there. It is a factor, and then there’s the fact that writing is our home. Slowly, slowly, slowly, we would construct corporeal communities. Now we have the Protactile movement, the biggest, most dramatic claim we have ever made for the right to live as tactile people and to break down distantism. These developments are earthshaking. Yet our traditional viertual community, which made its transition to email very early in the Internet age, remains our primary space. Where you have people who literally write to exist, to socialize, and to perform many human functions, you bet there’s poetry.

You have to understand. Virtually (exactly!) every significant DeafBlind historical figure was a poet. Morrison Heady published two collections. Laura Bridgman dabbled in it. Even Helen Keller couldn’t reist knocking the canon on its head with “The Song of the Stone Wall.” Richard Kinney, Robert J. Smithdas, Geraldine Lawhorn—poets all of them, in addition to the things they were more famous or tokenized for. Also, many, many don’t realize that they just wrote a poem. Some of them know it’s poetry but don’t care one whit about publishing.

You know the story that recently went viral, about a teenage girl “signing” to a DeafBlind man on a plane? Awful story, inspiration porn. But—it so happens the DeafBlind man, Tim Cook, is one of the greatest poets alive. I learned much about writing poetry from him from just hanging out with him when I spent some years on a list moderated by another great poet, the recently departed Melanie Kuu Ipo Bond. On that list, he was “De Jester,” she was “Momma Nature,” and he gave me the nickname of “Referend Johnny”—fitting, because I breathed fire in those days. I urged him to collect his wonderful poems into a book and have it published. He wasn’t interested, said he just wrote to delight his friends and that’s all. Most of us write crap, fun crap, but trust me when I say that Tim Cook is different. And this hidden genius, who has flown on planes all his life, sometimes to meet someone he has fallen in love with, is suddenly party to a story that goes viral and they have no idea, and will never realize, just who he is. Why am I telling you all of this? My main point is that a random DeafBlind person like that, it’s no accident he happens to be a poet.

Lilah Katcher: June Jordan said that poetry is a political act because it involves telling the truth. I believe that for those of us who have truths that might be less known or attended to, this is especially important.

 

2) Mainstream American culture seems to approach deaf people as one group of disable people, without really realizing there are many, often very intricate differences, cultural variations, language groups. How do you, as a poet, navigate this? In what ways–if at all–does it influence your writing?

 

John Lee Clark: Yes, yes, it’s complicated, multilayered, often conflicting. Maybe it’d be good to talk about privilege and capital. There are competing privileges and sources of capital, which have currency in some spheres and not in others.

I was born as a basically sighted Deaf person, already a little blind I’m sure, but I started life as what is called a Deaf of Deaf. My parents were Deaf, and this fact meant I had access to language at birth. Most Deaf and DeafBlind people don’t have this privilege because they are born into hearing families, and there are additional problems when their parents freak out, feel guilt, call the calvary to hammer everything they can into their poor babies’ skulls. Often people would say that I am lucky because I had Deaf parents. That’s wrong, because everyone should have that. It should be the baseline, that you’d be born and your parents don’t freak out and you all communicate a common language. Everyone should have that. Anything below that is deprivation.

But within the sighted Deaf world, it functions as a tremendous privilege. In that world, too, English is highly valued. Members of the elite speak ASL with a heavy English accent, fingerspelling many English words. Sometimes this is called the Gallaudet style, because Gallaudet alumni would show off their education in this way. There is a rift between the Gallaudet style and more authentic ASL. This was further complicated when ASL was recognized as a bona fide language and it became hot in the academic world. I grew up picking up on two messages: English would be my meal ticket and ASL would be my meal ticket.

So it was already going to be a status booster if I ended up as an English poet, but I showed no interest in reading as a child. However, I was becoming increasingly blind and at one point I went into denial. This meant a period of isolation and it connected me with books, and every step in my changing vision led me to poetry. Even if it did not do that, I entered into a community full of poets. Meanwhile, I did grow up as something of an ASL adept, and I can imagine a trajectory where, if I never became blind, I’d still end up being an ASL poet.

It would take me many years to figure it out, but ASL is not a DeafBlind language. My fluency in ASL necessarily eroded as I became a tactile person, and this was a personal loss. I mean, ASL is my first language. It’s a big thing to lose one’s first language, isn’t it? With that loss went a great deal of my Deaf of Deaf capital and privileges.

This is hard to explain briefly, because there are so many things interwoven into this, but as much as ASL has been celebrated, English hegemony is overpowering. In our country the mainstream has often touted multiculturalism, but this always stops at multilingualism. For example, when I began to translate ASL poetry into English and look for publications and grants, I found that it was all assumed that foreign languages meant sources outside of the United States. There’s a side of me that naturally wishes to resist this and to regard my own writings in English as automatically and deeply problematic. Many times I feel like I shouldn’t write in English, because it meant doing some things that a portion of my community, due to various English literacy situations, would not be able to access or enjoy. In my family, we have removed as much of English we can from our daily communication. This has seen a flowering of our sign languages, both ASL and Protactile.

Yet what would be right or better for Deaf poets to do, what they need to be aware of if they choose to write in English, cannot be equally applied to DeafBlind poets. For one thing, we have no way to transmit Protactile over long distances. Sighted Deaf people now can make phone calls, send cellphone messages, and hold forth on social media all in ASL. That is wonderful and liberating. It poses a necessary threat to the universe. But we DeafBlind people must continue to use English, which remains the best way to communicate over long distances. We have our virtual spaces and traditions, we use flexible literacy approaches and often write in dialect and pidgin English. These facts make it less of a sin to be an English poet, but I still grapple with it. It is easier to be an English poet than to be a poet in a still-forbidden language like ASL, still harder to be a poet in an emerging language like Protactile. It is easier for English poets to be published and win grants. Writing in English reinforces English language dominance. Oh yes, it defiles and it corrupts. I assure you. So I proceed with qualms. I try to make sure I take quanties of probiotics and detoxicants.

 Lilah Katcher:   One thing that people do not always realize is that American Sign Language (ASL) is a language in its own right that is distinct from English. This means that people who use ASL are (at least) bilingual, which is not the experience of the majority in this country.  Additionally, as a minority language, ASL has historically been influenced by the dominant language, English, in different ways.  As an ASL-English bilingual who writes poetry in English, I sometimes think about ways that ASL might come into or influence my English writing. Sometimes this could mean playing with language in a way that will only have meaning to audiences who know both languages.  For example, an early poem where I did this is “Finger Rain,” which is a poem consisting of a single English word repeated multiple times. A reader who did not know ASL might not be able to understand more than this single word. The poem’s use of space and the pattern of repetition, however, evoke additional meaning for those who know ASL.

Karen Christie: The “mainstream” narrow view of Deaf people influences my writing because I have grown up in this culture and internalized some of these attitudes even though my lived experiences tell me differently.  These views I sometimes tackle head on in my writing but I try not to let them dominate and control.

It is my hope that Deaf folks will find recognition in my writing which affirms our shared culture.  It is my hope that outsiders recognize they are being offered a glimpse into a different way of being in the world, but one in which acknowledges our shared humanity.
Of course, neither my poems nor I can represent all Deaf people and I think it’s a tragedy that there are many poems that have been unwritten and unsigned—poems portraying intersectional Deaf experiences along with those by Deaf people who have grown up being deprived a language in which to create poetry.  All those blank spaces need to be acknowledged.

 

3) Often, when the conversation about deaf, deafblind or hard of hearing poets takes place at mainstream conferences and/or media, the recurring subject is that of equal assess and discrimination. This subject is very important and should be discussed and addressed. 

But one also wonders if enough spotlight is placed on the poetics.

With this in mind, could you  speak about your poetics and your relationship to language?

 

Karen Christie: Limited access and discrimination are a part of our lives and our poems but it does seem as if by focusing on content there is an implicit belief that Deaf poets have nothing to contribute related to poetics.  Even though my poetry is in English, I believe there is a strong ASL influence.  I have sometimes translated my own poems from English into ASL and in that process, I change the original English poem.  The translated ASL sign or way of phrasing offers me another way to consider playing with English grammar or word choices.

In one poem, I describe a scene with dandelions, a minor detail except for its allusion to a classic ASL poem, and so it carries a particular cultural meaning.  In another, I describe a ‘new face person’ –an English gloss of an old ASL sign that meant “stranger.” Yet in this case, the poem is about a new Deaf student, a familiar unknown person we had been waiting for.  So, there are many cultural allusions and interplay between ASL signs and English words.

In terms of my relationship to language, I am simply a lover of language and a believer in its magic.  I have been a teacher of English, ASL linguistics, ASL literature, English literature as well as language acquisition.  As a Deaf person, I grew up trying to puzzle out the raw materials of written English for access to education and information.  Learning ASL, meant freedom, home and being able to use language for all the things language should be used for. It was ASL that taught me the true meaning of English.

Most of my academic life, I have analyzed ASL poetry.  While I think people from

Hearing culture would want to look for the lack of sound or sound images in the works of Deaf poets, I think they would be surprised to find how much rhythm is there.  In ASL poems, we have rhythms of repeated signed handshapes, rhythms in our use of space, and powerful rhythms in the movements of signs.  There is, at times, a deafening rhythm in the poems of a visual language.  This, I believe, is highly symbolic of the majority culture’s view of Deaf people and Deaf poetry—where folks look for an absence, they overlook a powerful presence.

John Lee Clark: I think that many of these conversations about access revolve around too narrow a basis. Maybe for many disability groups it is narrow because they would gain full access if only a few things were tinkered with. Also, the disability rights movement is bent on “integration” into mainstream society. If that’s what they want, they should go for it and fight for it, yes. But that drive toward integration often sweeps aside other perspectives and goals. A major difference is also that Deaf and DeafBlind people speak sign languages, and mere access is almost never satisfactory.

Let me start with a simple example. I cannot tell you how m
any times someone would ask me to check their organization’s Web site and let them know if it’s accessible. It is good that they want to make sure, but they’re operating on a very mistaken assumption. They assume that if the Web site is accessible, they are successfully including us. Not so. Web sites are difficult to navigate via Braille. You can see the whole screen at a glance and use the cursor to click on anything. Braille is different. It is one line of text at a time. For that reason, we love email and we hate to ever go online.

So the question should be how their organization can reach out or include us, not how to make their Web site accessible. Do you see what I mean? The same misframing of the conversation happens over and over. In a scramble to include more people with disabilities in higher education, to use another example, they may add to a job posting the words: “People with disabilities are encouraged to apply.” But they haven’t asked the right questions yet. They’ve been unwittingly discriminatory every step of the way, and then they are puzzled. Why hasn’t anyone with disabilities applied?

In this way, “inclusion” feels like a farce. These are invitations to fit in, not to include, not to change anything. It staggers me to see the word “diversity” thrown around so much these days, and perhaps it is true that there are new faces, that is important, but the format, the spaces, the schedule, the required qualifications, the evaluation systems, the length, the ways of doing things, the application or submission processes, all of these things are the same. Exactly the same. Is diversity really happening? Yes and no.

Also, one Deaf or one DeafBlind person is not integration. Integration should mean more than one, the more the better. Integration should mean that the place is no longer a hearing place at all. If the place is still hearing, the format is hearing, hearing customs and ways of doing things reign, inclusion is not happening. Technically, access may be there. Interpreters may be provided, CART, captioning, whatever. All of those are superifical and often meaningless to me. Access as a means to include may work for some, but for me access would merely be the byproduct of true inclusion, for if a place changes, things are redesigned, many traditional accommodations would be rendered unnecessary. There are so many accommodations that seem necessary because what is attempted is to fit in.

Shouldn’t we be asking different questions than questions of access? I know many, many Deaf poets, and there are many more DeafBlind poets. I know that we can benefit from the resources available in the poetry world. We can contribute. But they can’t just say, “C’mon, apply!” They can’t just say, “We’d like you to teach the summer workshop. Don’t worry, we’ll provide interpreters!” They need to ask different questions. “How do we get some of these grants into the hands of deserving DeafBlind poets?” They may find that they have to do it in a completely different way. They need to ask, “How would you like to teach poetry?” They may find that they need to throw out the big conference table in the middle of the room that they take so much for granted. I’m sorry, but so many of us are just not interested in fitting in. Indeed, we cannot. Instead, we’re interested in collaboration. We’re interested in changing the world.

Lilah Katcher: I love to get up close to language and figure out what it’s made of. I love words: their textures and surfaces, their histories and stories, their meanings and the ghosts of meanings they have shed. I am curious and excited about language. I like to play with it and see what it can do—what I can make it do.  I appreciate language’s complexity and capacity for fun. At the same time, I have had enough experience going between two languages and grappling with interpreted information that I recognize that language can sometimes be a barrier to understanding.  Ultimately, I want language that connects me to other people and their ideas.  So often language does not connect: it confuses, disenfranchises, alienates, excludes.  It’s confusing and wearying to grapple with language at these times. Sometimes I just want that unobstructed path; it is such a relief when language can do that, and I strive for more clarity in my own language.  Poetry with simple, clear language is a joy.

 

 

* * *

POEMS AND TRANSLATIONS AND COMMENTARY BY OUR ROUNDTABLE DISCUSSION PARTICIPANTS:

 

John Lee Clark

 

ORDER

We break our story into eight parts because there are eight of us to tell it tonight. It is our job to be one-eighths of ourselves. We break our audience into eight clusters. We shift from cluster to cluster. We don’t do rows. We don’t do circles. What we do is cellular structure. We are a living biology. Every part is different each time. Each cluster is different every time. The story is the same. We have been broken so many times we are unbreakable. We have been forced apart so many times we are always whole. That is our story. We are growing smaller and smaller and larger and larger at the same time. It doesn’t matter in what order we get everything. It only matters that we get everything.

 

FOUR SLATEKU

 

What is the point of travel
For a DeafBlind person
Other than the food the people the shops
And all that

*

Part one young
Question mother father
Know right name
Work some day

*

The mutant four-fingered carrot
Is in the pot and growing
Sweeter as it relaxes
Its grip

*

When we say good morning
In Japanese Sign Language
We pull down a string
To greet each other in a new light

 

*

A note by John Lee Clark:

“The Braille slate has two parts connected by a hinge. The back is full of tiny holes and the other part has marching rows of windows. Set a sheet of paper on the back, close the other part over it, pick up a stylus, and you are ready to write. You press down on the stylus to make dots stand up on the other side of the sheet. You must go right to left so that the text reads left to right on the other side. Often described as ‘writing backward,’ I prefer to think of it as writing forward in a different direction and from a different spatial perspective. The classic slate has four rows of twenty-eight cells each. This rarely corresponds to 28 characters in print, for the English Braille American Edition code has 189 contractions. The one that saves the most space is ‘k’ standing alone, which means ‘knowledge.’ Sometimes you are aware of writing two things at once because the dots you are making stand up on the other side mean something else where you are pressing them down. It is not unlike painting the figure of the letter ‘b’ inside a shop window for it to say the letter ‘d’ to the outside. Braille is full of characters that are the obverse of each other—‘d’ and ‘f,’ or, if they are standing alone, ‘do’ and ‘from’; ‘m’ and ‘sh’ or ‘more’ and ‘shall’; ‘to’ or the exclamation point and the period or the prefix ‘dis’; ‘ked’ and the suffix ‘sion.’ Thus, to write ‘so you have it’ is also to write the ghost of ‘which and just it.’”

*

 

Lilah Katcher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SILENT BODIES
Once we made a world

where bodies spoke to bodies.

Language was a moving thing.

We shaped and navigated

new terrain: our hands

carried us over mountains,

and through forests.

Our arms flowed like rivers,

finger-tributaries crossing

like the lines on our palms.

Our bodies had wisdom,

and knew the circles of time.

Then, others came,

ashamed of the body.

They did not care

to understand its speech.

Language, they said,

should be heard, not felt.

Their silent bodies

did not know time’s circles.

They named the stars slowly,

one by one.

 

*

Karen Christie

 

Deaf Awareness

 

In a small operating theatre that doubles as a classroom,

I am seated for a panel discussion.

The student doctors in their lab coats practice observation.

As living clothed bodies, we are

wholes instead of parts but

the first interpreted question is:

Don’t you wish a cure?

If I could I would

wish for healing hands,

my own. One touch

on each of your closed eyelids–

Ephphatha, “be opened”–

now you see us.

A miracle.

 

*

The Rosebush by Ella Mae Lentz

[Translated from ASL by Karen Christie]

 

In the beginning
Were dark heavens
Until the skies were touched with light

In the beginning
Was the earth
Evolving
With living things

In the beginning
Was a seed
Planted and fed
By sunlight and rain

From the seed
Young roots burrowed
Veins spreading entwining
And reaching upward

Breaking above ground
Each stem bud blossom
Mined the air

One root stem
Unleashed red roses
Red red red

Sister roots
Grew buds opening yellow flowers
Yellow yellow yellow

Tunneling farther
New branches held purple blossoms
Purple purple purple

Their fragrant breaths
Swirled skyward
Feeding
The stars

And there uniting earth
And sky
Was the Rosebush

There came a time
When fawns and butterflies
Savored her colors
With their delicate tongues

Until
In an approaching thunder
The arrival
Of man

Not pleasing to his eye
The Rosebush stood
An aberration of color
An affront to clean greenery

He tore at her flowers
Wrenching up stems and branches

Drawing inward
The Rosebush
Tapped into her rage
To power the sharpness of thorns

Man parried
Fencing her in with iron
Locking her away
As he experimented with final solutions

Still the mother root nurtured
Long arms of new blossoms
Stretching
Beyond caged boundaries

Once again their fragrant breaths
Swirled skyward
Feeding
The stars

There came a time
When children
Enfolded the roses
Carrying them off as their own

But soon learned
In their small hands
That the colors and smell they loved
Could not be possessed

Men refused the lesson
Breaking in
Cutting deeper
Until she could only
Whisper fragrance

Today the Rosebush
Bled of colors
Still lives

Underground
The ancient root of all roots
Crawls
Reaching out

Is she to be
Abandoned
Stifled
Knowing the foul darkness
Of sure extinction?

*

(Original ASL poem by Ella Mae Lentz can be found here.)

*

ABOUT THE AUTHORS:

Karen Christie, PhD, has taught for many years at the National Technical Institute for the Deaf, at Rochester Institute of Technology. She has participated in numerous conferences and festivals on Deaf Literature and culture. She is the creator of Deaf Woman History website, which you can find at: https://deafwomeninhistory.wordpress.com

John Lee Clark is a DeafBlind poet, essayist and independent scholar from Minnesota. His chapbook of poems, Suddenly Slow, appeared in 2008. He has edited two anthologies, Deaf American Poetry (Gallaudet University Press, 2009) and Deaf Lit Extravaganza (Handtype Press, 2013). His latest book is a collection of essays called Where I Stand: On the Signing Community and My DeafBlind Experience (Handtype Press, 2014).

Lilah Katcher’s poetry has appeared or is forthcoming in journals such as Barrelhouse and Gargoyle. Her recent interview with Carmen Maria Machado appeared in FOLIOv 33 and her flash fiction is included in the anthology Tripping the Light Fantastic: Weird Fiction by Deaf and Hard of Hearing Writers. She has an MFA from American University.

 

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