Special Feature

A Conversation with Ted Kooser

Four Civil War Paintings by Winslow Homer

. . . if the painter shows that he observes more than he reflects, we will forget the limitation and take his work as we take nature, which, if it does not think, is yet the cause of thought in us.
– The Evening Post, New York, May 31, 1865

1. Sharpshooter

A Union sniper in a tree

Some part of art is the art
Of waiting – the chord
behind the tight fence
of a musical staff,
the sonnet shut in a book.
This is a painting of
waiting: the sharp crack
under the tiny
percussion cap
poised under the cocked
curl of the hammer,
and this young man among
the pine needles,
his finger as light as a breath
on the trigger,
just a pinpoint of light
in his one open eye,
like a star you might see
in broad daylight
if you thought to look up.

2. The Bright Side

Black Union teamsters at
rest against a yellow tent

Though they lie in the sun
the light does not glance from
their shadowy faces or hands
(one faint highlight, like a twist
of cotton, on the bill of a cap).
Instead, the sun seems to soak
into their sweaty clothes
and their skin, making them
even more black than they were.
On the bright side of their tent
they look like oily cannon rags
or a heap of old harness.
Beyond, mules graze on light,
and canvas-topped wagons
loom bright as sails, so airy
you would think they were
empty.  Perhaps they are,
perhaps these five black men
have taken off all the load.
the powder kegs, the bags
of potatoes, the canisters of lead
so dark, so heavy in their sleep
(with one man left awake
to smoke his pipe and watch).

3. Prisoners from the Front

Three Confederate soldiers awaiting
their disposition by a union general

The youngest captive wears full
butternut regalia, is handsome
with long red hair, his field cap
cocked, one hand on his hip, a man
not ready to be immortalized
under yellowing varnish.  An old man
stands next in line, bearded
and wearing a ragged brown coat.
He slumps like the very meaning
of surrender, but his jaw is set
and his eyes are like flashes
from distant cannon (we have waited
a hundred and forty years
to hear those reports).  The third
is hot and young and ornery,
wearing a floppy hat, brim up,
his military coat unbuttoned,
hands stuffed in his pockets,
his mouth poised to spit.
It would be he who would ruin
the Union general’s moment,
this formal military portrait,
that neat blue uniform, the cavalry
saber and fancy black hat.  He would
surely do something to spoil it
if the painter would give him a chance.

4. The Veteran in a New Field

A lone man scything wheat

His back is turned to us, his white shirt
the brightest thing in the painting.
Old trousers, leather army suspenders.
Before him the red wheat bends,
the sky is cloudless, smokeless, and blue.
Where he has passed, the hot stalks spread
in streaks, like a shell exploding, but that is
behind him.  With stiff, bony shoulders
he mows his way into the colors of summer.

(Poems from Delights & Shadows copyright 2004 by Copper Canyon Press.  Reprinted by permission of the author and Copper Canyon.)

Ted Kooser was born in Ames, Iowa in 1939 and received a B. S. from Iowa State where he enrolled to study architecture but in his junior year switched to a nascent liberal arts program that upon graduation certified him to teach English. He taught high school English for one year upon finishing school. Though he admits to not being a great high school teacher, he decided to pursue an advanced degree and began an M.A. in English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. There he studied under Karl Shapiro. Because he was not successful as a scholar and lost his assistantship, Kooser began working in an insurance company to provide an income so that he could finish his degree. He continued writing poetry and getting up early to do his writing, a practice that he has continued to this day. He published his first book when he was 30, and he believes that the key to being successful in poetry is just to stick to it and to do the hard work of writing. His persistence has paid off. Always hoping to write poems open and accessible to everyone, he says, “I want poems that my secretary could read and understand.”

Mr. Kooser, U.S. Poet Laureate from 2004-2006 and winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for his collection of poems, Delights and Shadows. He retired as Vice President of Lincoln Benefit Life Company in 1999. He lives with his wife, Kathleen Rutledge, former editor of The Lincoln Journal Star, on a small farm near Garland, Nebraska.(C.H.P.)

The following conversation is a composite based upon a series of interview questions that I mailed to Ted Kooser when I found out that he would be a visiting poet at Longwood University where I was teaching, as well as a class presentation that he conducted while at the university. Brett Hursey, friend and poet, graciously allowed me to record the class session since I was not able to conduct a formal interview with Mr. Kooser at that time. His informal manner with the class elicited an array of questions from the students.

Chapman Hood Frazier Talks with with Ted Kooser

Chapman Hood Frazier: I noticed that the poem, “Four Civil War Paintings by Winslow Homer” was your only series of poems in Delights and Shadows. Tell us about how you composed these poems? Did you actually begin with “Sharpshooter”?

Ted Kooser: I don’t often write about paintings because such poems require too much exposition. You have to take time to describe the painting and that sort of description is difficult to make engaging. But these four pictures interested me when I found them in an article in a magazine. I have no recollection of anything remarkable going on in my life at that time, nor what impelled me to write them. I do remember writing “The Sharpshooter” poem first. It was the easiest to describe, the painting being rather simple in composition. I wrote no other poems about Homer paintings because I was looking at only these four, in reproduction, and didn’t look further. Since writing the poems I have seen a big retrospective of Homer’s art, which I enjoyed.

Frazier: In your first chapter, “First Impressions” from The Poetry Home Repair Manual, you write: “The titles and first few lines of your poem represent the hand you extend in friendship towards the reader.” In this poem, you actually begin with the images of “waiting” that slow down the pace of the poem and delay our actual entry into the scene. Is this how you started this poem? Or did it begin with line 6 and you added these early lines later? Also, I love how you use 2nd person to bring the reader into the poem as a participant, especially as you move us to the unexpectedness of your last image. This point of view is quite different from the third person point of view that is apparent in the other poems.

Kooser: I really don’t recall the manner in which the poem developed. I revise extensively and a poem of that length can result from thirty or forty versions. I used 2nd person primarily because I wanted to include the “you” under the threat of the sniper.

Frazier: In “The Bright Side” the images and similes that you use to describe the black soldiers portray them as objects: “like oily cannon rags” or “old harness.” How did you arrive at these similes?

Kooser: Simply, that’s what they looked like. I have a habit of thinking in metaphor and these similes must have come to me in the process of trying to describe the pictures. Above, where I talked about the difficulty of having to use exposition, well, figurative language can help us tolerate exposition.

Frazier: Do you find that all poems have an element of exposition that you as a poet must bring to the forefront? How is writing a poem like The Sniper or one of these about art different from how you write your other poems?

Kooser: It’s nearly always to furnish some information to the reader, and we can call that exposition. It has to be handled with great care because the more information a poet inserts in a poem, the more the poem sickens. Too much information and it dies. In these Homer poems I had to describe the paintings for my reader, thinking that without doing so he or she was in the dark. Writing about paintings is probably always like this. In “Musee des Beaux Arts,” Auden had to describe that painting in which Icarus is falling into the sea so that readers not familiar with the painting could “see” it.

Too much information is the biggest risk in writing about history, too, as I learned when I was trying to write a long poem about the Black Hawk War of 1832. I knew a lot about the situation from having read a good deal, but I had to feed the knowledge into the poetry a little at a time. A big block of historical data would have stopped the poem in its tracks. David Mason’s wonderful book-length poem Ludlow does a great job of managing history and is a model for this kind of writing.

Frazier: “Prisoners from the Front” is a nice balance to “The Bright Side” in that you are showing three Confederate prisoners and how their body language presents a very different picture of the war. This portrait of insolence in the face of capture is strong and engaging. The very end of the poem moves us back to the artist, outside the scene and away from the portrait itself. How did you decide to end like that? Was that your first impulse or did it come much later during your revision process?

Kooser: Again, I’m sorry, but I can’t recall how the poem developed. I remember wanting to suggest the political dynamics behind the scene, so I would have been composing in that direction.

Frazier: Do you remember how you composed The Veteran in a New Field”? Do you listen to music or read other people’s poems during your writing process?

Kooser: Again, I have no specific recollection as to how the composition went, other than to underline the fact that I revise extensively. I most often write very early in the morning, from about 4:30 or 5:00 until about seven. I don’t want any distractions, so of course I don’t listen to music. Writing for me requires an intense, almost trancelike state of concentration. I begin poems then, and sometimes revise them over a period of several days, trying them this way and that. It helps to sleep on them, to let them show me their weak spots, which I can’t immediately see but which become apparent with detachment.

Frazier: Do you recall how long it took you to craft these poems? Did they all come at one sitting or did you write each one separately?

Kooser: I’m sorry, I can’t tell you how long they took. I wrote them separately, and when I’m lucky I can pretty well flesh out the first draft of a poem on the first day. Then I let them sit and look at them again in a few days.

Frazier: Your poems often elevate the ordinary. Tell us, if you would, a little about how you grew up and what you consider to be some of the significant events in your life that have impacted you as a writer?

Kooser: Well, I grew up in Ames, Iowa, and went on to college there. We tend to use the term “ordinary” to describe things that we look at or pass over hastily, because they don’t immediately engage us. But behind the screen of the ordinary can be found unique and wonderful things. As to the significant events in my life, there were my two marriages, the birth of my son, being diagnosed with cancer, and so on. The deaths of my grandparents and uncles and aunts had a considerable effect on my life, and then the deaths of my parents, of course. I quit drinking in 1986 and I’d guess that that had more of an effect on the course of my life than just about anything else. I had never gotten in trouble from drinking, and may not have been a classic alcoholic, but drinking did waste a lot of my time and shaped the way I lived.

I wrote some poems when I was a little boy in grade school, but I think we all probably were doing that then, and I didn’t really get serious about it until I was an adolescent.  I was sort of an outsider as an adolescent. I had no athletic ability. I couldn’t play a musical instrument, I could do none of the things that we used to say the popular kids could do, and I was very much on the outside. Somehow or other I got the idea that writing and painting would make me very interesting, that is, romantically interesting. It was mostly about girls. I think if you asked most people in the arts about their real motivation for why they got in the arts you would find that [romantic motivation] had a lot to do with it.

So I fell upon it with the single-mindedness of an outsider teenager and started writing and trying to look like a poet: wearing clothes that would look pretty ridiculous today. But at that time, in the 1950’s, there were these beachcomber pants that tied with a piece of cord and had a sort of petal-pusher length. And rather than real sandals we had plastic flip-flops, (which are now back, of course) and I walked around with my brow furrowed so that people would take me real seriously, (I have these permanent furrows as a result of that) and under my arm I carried big heavy books that I couldn’t have read if I wanted to, but they looked really good and they would make my bicep look a little bit better.

I notice that this happens a lot in the arts and I’ve had students who act like this as well. They really want to be “the poet” before they get around to writing the poems, or they want to be the painter before they really do too much painting. It’s a matter of taking on the identity and then realizing after the fact that you’ve got to do some work. In a way it happened with me, I thought, Well if I’m going to be this romantic figure as a poet then I probably ought to be writing some poems. So, I did a lot of that and went on to college at Iowa State, an old land grant engineering school in my home town.

Frazier: So, did you follow your intuition at Iowa State and begin studying poetry writing or literature?

Kooser: Well, not exactly. When I graduated from high school advisors were not terribly sophisticated. My high school advisor was the football coach, and at the end of my senior year he called me in and said, “Now Ted, you can draw and you’ve gotten A’s in art. There are two things you could do with your life, you could be an art teacher or an architect.” And I thought, ‘Huh, well maybe I’ll be an architect.’ I was kind of shy about being a teacher.

So off I go into architecture school at Iowa State. You know, it was as if there weren’t any other choices in life at all other than those two. And I forced myself through the basic architecture courses until I got to the first quarter of my junior year. They were on the quarter system then. I had already begun to have terrible difficulty with math and physics. It was the first day of a class called “Theoretical and Applied Mathematics,” and there were two problems set up for us to do. One was a table with a hole in it and about 20 feet of a heavy log chain circling the hole. We had our slide rules, do you remember what a slide rule is? We were to figure out, given the weight of the links of the chain, when one began to lower the chain through the hole, at what point would it begin to pull itself through by its own weight? Then, we were to figure out the rate of acceleration given a certain amount of resistance before it all fell through the hole onto the floor. That was one of the two problems for that day. The other one, was a block of wood on a piece of rope and we were to shoot into it with a certain muzzle velocity rifle that had a certain weight slug, and figure out how far the wood would swing in response to being impacted by the bullet. Then, we were to figure out the path of the bullet as it entered the wood given even resistance.

I sat there for about 15 minutes with everybody else writing around me and working their slide rules and doing all this stuff, and I just looked around and realized that I didn’t have a clue about what to do. There’s a lake on the center of the Iowa State University campus, called Lake Laverne, and I walked down to Lake Laverne, unsnapped my Dietzgen slide rule, threw it out in the middle of the lake, and dropped out of architecture school.

There was no English major at Iowa State at that time, because Iowa University was the liberal arts school, so I couldn’t really get an English major at Iowa State.  So I moved into what was called Distributive Studies because it was a way that I could get certified to teach high school English. So I did that and taught high school for one year at a little town near my hometown, and I didn’t like it much. I was a skinny little guy, and my students were all bigger than me and I made the mistake of trying to make friends with my students. I mean that’s the worst thing that can happen because they can take tremendous advantage of you. So I sort of ruined a year of high school teaching.

Frazier: So, was it at that time that you went to the University of Nebraska to graduate school? What drew you there?

Kooser: Yes, I was writing all this time, writing poems, and I decided well, maybe I could go to graduate school. I started applying, and the University of Nebraska in Lincoln accepted me. One of the reasons I wanted to go there was because Karl Shapiro, a famous poet who had won a Pulitzer Prize and the Bollingen Award and had been the editor of the prestigious Poetry magazine. He was teaching at Nebraska, and I thought I could learn about being a poet from him. So off I go to graduate school and I had an assistantship (called a reading assistantship) that paid a pittance to help a professor correct papers. My professor was a scholar of Renaissance drama.  The work bored me, and I suffered through a year of helping him.  All I really cared about was writing poems, and Karl Shapiro was right there and he and I had become friends and I spent a lot of time together. But I didn’t do anything else that I was supposed to do.

At the end of the first year of graduate school, my advisor called me in and, reclining in his chair and touching the tips of his fingers together, he said they were cutting me off and that they weren’t going to renew my assistantship because my grades were bad and I hadn’t even shown up for the Chaucer class at all.  So, they threw me out of graduate school and I had to figure out something to do. My first wife had a high school teaching job, so we had some income, but I knew I had to do something. So I sat around for a couple of months and started looking in the want ads.

There was a management trainee job at a life insurance company which involved answering letters to policyholders. I applied and got the job. The personnel manager was, I soon learned, an alcoholic, and I think he saw in me someone who would have a drink with him after work. So they hired me for this job even though I had never had a business course, and I knew nothing about business. I knew nothing about insurance. I went to work there, but I still knew that I wanted to be a writer.  I decided okay, you’re going to have to earn a living, this is what you’re going to do. You’re going to go to work every day at the insurance company.  You are going to put in eight hours, but before you go to work every morning, you’re going to get up and write. So I got in the habit of getting up at 4:30 or 5:00 and writing until about 7:00, then I had to bustle around, get my necktie on (no “business casual,” it was all suit and tie) and go to the insurance company. I rather liked this structure: the pay was good, I had good benefits, I was done at 5:00 every day, (while my colleagues at the English Department would stay up all night correcting student papers). I just sort of fell into it, and I started taking a few classes at night at the University to get my masters degree.  I worked at the first insurance company for 8 years and the next one for about 25 years.

I still get up early in the morning. I’ve been retired now for 8 years, but I still get up in the morning early and write every day. I sit in my chair with my cup of coffee and try to write and 28 days out of 30 I’m a complete failure at it. I write stuff that is just junk, but I figure if I’m not sitting there writing and the good one comes, I’m not going to get it at all. A very big part of being a success at anything is showing up for work. That’s the way I felt about it. I began publishing poems in literary magazines when I was about 25. I published my first book when I was 30, which at 67 is now a terrible embarrassment to me, that first book. Every once and awhile I’ll see a copy at a yard sale and I’ll buy it, take it home, and hide it so somebody else can’t see it.

This writing business you have to accustom yourself to is about failing again and again, and to not let that hold you up because if you keep at day, after day, after day, after day, eventually you’ll get better. The same thing would be true if I had taken up longbow archery with the same zeal that I took up poetry writing: I could put forty arrows on a paper plate from 100 yards away.  So that is what it’s about, showing up for work. I may have some talent, a gift for metaphor and so on, that other people might not have but generally my success is just the result of hard work over the years.

Frazier: What influenced your decision to write poetry? Did you have teachers in school who encouraged you or a group of friends that you shared poems with? Who were the key poets that you felt influenced you as a writer?

Kooser: Much of my impulse to write poetry came from my need to find ways of dealing with loss, so my feelings about the deaths that I mentioned earlier shaped some of my early work. I did have a couple of very good teachers in high school who encouraged my writing, and when I got to college I had a couple of friends I showed my poems to. By the time I was studying with Karl Shapiro I was reading many of the poets who were really my first teachers, May Swenson, William Carlos Williams, Randall Jarrell, and others. All of their poems had an effect upon me, May Swenson’s in particular. She seemed to be able to write in any form and about anything.

The biggest challenge to me as a writer has always been to find time to write, to fit it into my life. And the greatest benefit has been to be able to establish small pieces of order, poems, from a life that can seem without order.

Frazier: Who do you consider to be major influences on your development as a writer? Who has shaped your writing and what have you learned from them?

Kooser: I mentioned May Swenson and Williams and Jarrell above. There was also my teacher and friend, Karl Shapiro. But it’s important to note that I have read tens of thousands of poems and I’d guess everything I’ve read has in some minute way shaped my writing.

Frazier: Who do you read today? Do you read literary criticism or what the critics say about your work?

Kooser: I recently served on a poetry jury and read more than two hundred books. Of those, I liked about a dozen, but I don’t want to name names. If a book has a poem or two that I like, and lots that I don’t like, the two that I like make it a book I want to keep, and I have about four thousand poetry titles in my library. Because I have achieved some success as a poet, somebody sends me a book of poems nearly every day. I look at them all and write a note acknowledging receipt. Many of them I’ll never open again, but I keep them, thinking that some day I may donate them all to a library.

I read very little literary criticism and never read anything written about me. I discovered long ago that it did me no good whatsoever. The criticism hurt me and the praise seemed overblown. It’s been best to just ignore literary criticism. Nothing a critic might say is going to change the way I live or write. As to reading, I read all sorts of things from detective novels to books on nature to volumes of letters.

Frazier: What is your advice for teachers of poetry in high school or college?

Kooser: Teachers need to make poetry pleasurable. If a student finds poetry to be a chore he or she will never read it in later life.

Frazier: In Writing Brave and Free, you discuss how a writer may find publishers for their manuscripts. Tell us about how you published your first book?

Kooser: My first book was published when I was thirty, and it is something of an embarrassment to me now. All of the poems seem derivative of my early influences. A substantial portion of that book had appeared already in one literary journal or another, and that is the way most books of poetry are put together, from poems that have already proven themselves in literary publications.

Frazier: When you were invited to become poet laureate of the United States, how did you first learn about the honor and how has it impacted you?

Kooser: Yes, I got a call on a Friday evening, the 8th or 9th of August in 2004. My wife was in Washington D.C. on journalism business, and I was trying to figure out what I was going to have for supper. It was maybe 10 minutes after 6:00. Phone rings, “Ted Kooser?”
“Ted Kooser, the poet?”
“My name is Prosser Gifford, I am the director of scholarly programs at the Library of Congress, and I am calling to see if you would like to be the next poet laureate of the United States.”
And I thought Holy Jesus. So I am trying to respond to this and blabbering and making very little sense and he says, “you know, why don’t I call you back tomorrow?”
I got off the phone, began pacing around and couldn’t get my wife on the phone. I noticed that I had 2 DVD’s that we had checked out of the movie place in this little town about 12 miles from where we lived in the country. I thought, okay these are overdue. They were due at 6:00, you’re going to get in the car, drive to Seward),return the movies, and if you get there soon enough maybe they won’t fine you 50 cents, or whatever it was. So, I go out to the car, and tell myself that I am going to think about being the poet laureate all the way over there and back. I go out to the car, put the DVD’s on the seat, back out of the garage, and I rip the side mirror off on the center post of the garage. It’s one of those mirrors that has a power cord so you can adjust it, and now it’s hanging on the side of the car. I know right away that this is going to be expensive. So, already I have made a stupid mistake as a result of this poet laureate call. I get in the car and I drive to Sewardandthe whole time I am thinking, holy Jesus, what is this going to be like? I mean traveling, going to Washington, doing all this stuff?

So, I pull into Seward and I think, huh, Bernie at the body shop is probably still working at this hour, these guys work late on Friday nights. I’ll go talk to Bernie about this mirror. So I go out there and they did all this stuff with the computer and they looked it up and said it was going to be $138.00 and some change to fix this mirror. I thought, oh God, you know? Dumb, you know? All for the sake of two DVD’s I get back in the car feeling blue all the way home. I am feeling overpowered by being the poet laureate. I pull back in the garage very carefully, so as not to hit anything, I look down and the DVD’s are still in the car. So it’s like that, you know?

I knew that I was the first poet laureate ever to be picked from our part of the country, and I figured that I had better do it, and do a better job of it than anybody has ever done, because the eastern literary establishment had held a lock on it for a long time (with the exception of Bob Haas who is from California). Generally, it was all people from the Northeast corner who had been the poet laureates.  I knew that people would be coming after me, because I wasn’t one of them. But I just decided that for the next year or two (if they give me a second term) that I was going to do nothing but try to be good at this. And so I took it on with that spirit, and I probably made more appearances and did more interviews than anyone had ever done as poet laureate. I did things that were unexpected. I had the folk singer and songwriter, John Prine, come to The Library of Congress; the very first folk singer who had been on that stage since Woody Guthrie in 1936. I started a newspaper column that is still running and is free to any newspaper. In it, I present a short poem every week that I hope newspaper readers can understand with a little help, which includes a couple of introductory sentences by me. The column is running in almost 200 papers right now, and we have an estimated readership of 11 million, and I intend to keep it going even though I am no longer poet laureate.

The basic requirements for being poet laureate are pretty minimal.  You have to give a reading of your work in October to open the library’s season, and you give a closing lecture at the end of the year, and in between you have the privilege of giving away a couple $10,000 fellowships to poets you really admire.  I gave one to Claudia Emerson who is at Mary Washington University, close by here. And then you can invite people in to do readings and this Prine invitation I did was one of those, I brought George Garrett from Charlottesville in to do a reading at my request.

But it’s funded all by private donations, so there’s no government money that goes into it, no appropriation. There is no connection, whatsoever, with the Executive branch.  It’s all Library of Congress; it’s one of their programs.  So it worked out, and for me, it was an opportunity to get the attention of a lot of people. It provided an opportunity for me to talk with people about what I thought about poetry.  It allowed me to sort of push my agenda in a way.

Frazier: That is quite a story. What is one poem that you have written that was, perhaps, challenging to write and something that you would like to be remembered for?

Kooser: I wrote a 43 page essay about my mother’s family, called “Lights on a Ground of Darkness.” My mother was very ill with emphysema and heart trouble, and I decided that I would try to write about her family and give that to her before she died. And I worked on it hard for several months because I didn’t know how much time I would have. It was an opportunity for me to take some very ordinary people. like my grandfather, who was a farmer and ran a Standard gas station, and my grandmother, who was a homemaker and who lived on the edge of town and raised chickens, as well as my uncle who had cerebral palsy and lived at home with his parents. So I wrote this essay about the family with the idea that here was my opportunity to hold these people up into the light a little bit, that they might be forgotten otherwise because they were so ordinary. And every time anyone reads that essay, up into the light these people come for a little while. So it’s a way of giving my people a little temporary immortality. And I think that piece is probably, to me, the most important writing I have ever done.

I was afraid to show it to mother because I thought that it would make her terribly sad because all of these people were dead; she was the last survivor of the whole family.  And that didn’t happen at all. She was very pleased by it, which was a relief.  But that’s the kind of service that writers can do: you write about your family and it gives them a little bit of immortality.  Maybe your memoir is never published. Maybe it’s left in a manila folder somewhere and 75 years from now some grandchild comes upon it, opens it and reads about those long ago people, and all of a sudden they come to life. That is the kind of thing worth doing.

Chapman Hood Frazier is a Professor of Middle and Secondary Education at James Madison University and has published interviews with Gregory Orr and Nikki Giovanni  in The Writer’s Chronicle. In addition, he was a guest editor for The Hampden Sydney Poetry Review and Dos Passos Review  and has had poetry published in The Virginia Quarterly Review, The South Carolina Review and The Paterson Literary Review. Currently, he is working on a collection of interviews with contemporary poets.  He also took the above photograph of Mr. Kooser.

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