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Interview With Poet Tom Lombardo

Poetry is often at its best when it's helping readers gain greater insights into life. In the case of After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events, edited by Tom Lombardo (Sante Lucia Books), poems have been chosen to help readers to recover from subjects such as war, abuse, addiction, death, and more. The anthology includes 115 poets from 15 nations, including Donald Hall, Thomas Lux, J.P. Dancing Bear, Annie Finch, Kevin Young, William Stafford, Mary Jo Bang, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Valerie Nieman, Rita Dove, and Jeffrey Levine.

Here's a poem by Lombardo himself that appears in the Recovery From Death of a Spouse section:


For weeks after Lana's funeral,
my mother cooked for me,
handled death's paperwork,
opened a door--
Look outside at your back yard.
Looking outward for the first time since burial
prayers, I saw daffodils blooming,
the ones that Lana and I had planted
in a sunken rectangular spot last Fall,
set against the bright, new green of Spring,
Easter white and careless yellow.

And with that, let's jump into the interview.

What are you currently up to?

In addition to my ongoing freelance medical editing, which pays my office rent, I am spending nearly all of my creative writing time on the marketing and promotion of After Shocks. I'm also in initial discussions with two authors and another publisher regarding potential next projects for Sante Lucia Books. Sorry to say, my own writing time has disappeared. I miss it, and I'll get back to it soon. I hope.

I also spend a lot of time with my two children, Lucy (12) and Sam (9). As a freelancer, I'm flexible enough to be Mr. Mom and pick them up after school each day, manage their afternoon activities and homework. My wife, Hope, has a real job, with a salary and benefits.

After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events is an anthology inspired by your experience as a widower. Could you speak a little about how this experience led to the anthology? Also, what do you hope this anthology is able to accomplish?

I've always hated that label "widower." I was so, so young when the label attached to me. I thought a widower should be in his 70s or 80s, some old guy walking with a cane, not a vigorous young man. I felt so out of place.

After my first wife, Lana, was killed in an auto accident on April 13, 1985, I found myself a widower in my early 30s, without peer among anyone I knew. Well-wishers offered condolences like this: "You’re young. You'll get over this." Or "You're too young, you'll never get over this."

I have spent the past two-plus decades coming to some understanding of my wife's death, my grief, and what recovery means in the context of my own life.

Reading poetry gave me solace during the early stages of my grief. I returned to some old favorites—Emily Dickinson, T.S. Eliot, e.e. cummings, Robert Frost—not a particularly soothing group, you might say, but for me, they were familiar from a time in my life when my life seemed more settled. The language, the music, the ghosts in the haunted house offered an escape from a life seemingly shattered—an escape from "if…then", "what if ", "how", "why" questions plaguing my nights, questions that had no answers.

1985 was also the year of publication of Douglas Dunn's Elegies (Faber & Faber), which won the Whitbread Book of the Year. Sometime along the way, a dear friend gave me a copy, brought back from England. Though the circumstances of Leslie Balfour Dunn's death were quite different, I felt Dunn's world embrace me.

Grief wrongs us so. I stand, and wait, and cry

For the absurd forgiveness, not knowing why.

A decade later, Donald Hall's book Without, poems covering the illness and death of his wife, the poet Jane Kenyon, touched me in the same way.

These two books moved me deeply as books of recovery. They seemed direct, straightforward, and honest in their stories, emotion, and language.

Many contemporary poets are writing about topics in recovery. Mary Jo Bang's Elegy relives her grief over the death of her son. Linda McCarriston wrote Eva-Mary about growing up abused, which won the National Book Award. Sharon Olds wrote collections about childhood abuse and alcoholism. Others: Carolyn Forche, Bruce Weigl, Tess Gallagher, Marie Howe. Each poet has focused upon a topic of his or her own experience. They all represent a chorus of voices in a growing sub-genre of recovery poetry. I used a poem from Ms. Bang in After Shocks. The others will be considered for the second edition, due out in a couple of years.

What this anthology intends to do is show that the poetry of recovery cuts across many boundaries. What this anthology intends to accomplish is to provide its readers with a source of comfort in the language of poets who've experienced life-shattering events and have come to some kind of acceptance.

There are "115 poets from 15 nations" anthologized in After Shocks. How did you go about getting all the permissions? I'm guessing it must've been quite an undertaking.

You've heard the simile "it's like herding cats." The permissions effort for After Shocks was more than an undertaking. It became a lifestyle for several months. It took a great deal of organization, diligence, and guts. There were so many different pieces. But once I organized it in my own mind, the rest was just the grunt work of getting it done.

There are essentially two levels of permissions. The first level is the permissions from well-known, top-level poets with large corporate publishers, e.g. Donald Hall and Thomas Lux at Houghton Mifflin or Rita Dove at W.W. Norton, or Carol Ann Duffy at Faber & Faber, etc. Many of those very well-known poets have signed their rights over to their publishers, and those publishers re-sell the reprint rights, generally splitting the proceeds with the poet. In these cases, permissions became a matter of finding the permissions editor at the publisher, writing a letter, negotiating a fee, signing the contracts, sending a check. The process is well-defined, straightforward, and the permissions folks at these large publishers are professionals. They are eager to book the revenue from reprinted poems, for which you and I and they know that there's a very small market. So, in my case, as a very small publisher, the big houses were very easy to negotiate with. It was either give me a price I can afford or I walk, and if I walk, they get nothing.

I lost only one poem out of scores in this top level group. Only one publisher would not negotiate downward to a fee I felt I could afford.

The second level is essentially everyone else. Many of the poets at this level may have national profiles, many of them are well-known regionally, many of them are already award-winners. But their publishers are smaller houses than those large corporate publishers above and may not retain the re-print rights so that the author retains the rights, or if the publisher does retain the rights, it does not charge for reprints, or gives the poet the authority to grant the re-print rights. The process in these cases varies so much that it's virtually ad hoc. My approach was this: I emailed these poets, asked if they owned the rights to the poems I had selected for After Shocks. If they said YES, I took them at their word, and asked them to email permission, which they did. If they referred me to their publishers, then I emailed their publishers, and in almost all cases, received reprint permission via email free of charge. Most of the small publishers were cooperative, generous, easy to work with. Also in this second level, there were several contributors who submitted unpublished poems, so the permissions for those were very simple. The poets granted permissions. This second level was completed all via email. The first level was done all on paper, with letters and contracts and the good ol' United States Postal Service.

I must mention a few publishers like Alice James Books and Tupelo Press and Iris Press who were quite generous by not charging reprint fees when I asked for several poems from several of their poets' books. Working with editors like April Ossmann at Alice James and Jeffrey Levine at Tupelo and Bob Cumming at Iris was a pleasure. They are first-class editors, and they appreciate spreading their good poetry around.

On the other hand, there were a few small presses and university presses who were simply buttheads, refusing to negotiate or treating me with arrogance because I was not Norton or they believed I might be naïve or foolish enough to pay them exorbitant reprint fees. In four cases, I told the poets that I would not use their poems in the anthology because their publishers were not cooperating or were charging too much. In two of those cases, the poet's involvement broke the logjam. In the other two cases (both of themuniversity presses), I lost the poems because the university presses were quite rigid with their reprint structure and refused to negotiate even a penny. So, in the end, I walked, and they got nothing. I felt this as a defeat because in the end, it was the poets who lost, not After Shocks. I had plenty of great poems in hand.

There was one other negotiated oddity in permissions. One university press would not negotiate a reduced fee, and when I told the poet, she offered to pay the fee. I refused to go along, but she was adamant. I probably should not have given in, but I agreed to pay half the fee, which actually brought my cost down within a comfortable range. She paid the other half. I really liked this poem, and I really needed it to balance out a chapter, so my editorial needs may have trumped ethics. I'm not sure that I'd do that again. It seems a bit unfair for a poet to pay her own press to buy reprint rights to one of her own poems. I'm not sure what the ethics of that situation dictate. Maybe I'll write this question to the New York Times ethics column, eh?As editor of Writer's Market, do you have an opinion on this?

All in all, the permissions work was time-consuming and tedious. But it was worth every drop of sweat.

Also, to put together an anthology such as this, you must do a lot of reading. What (or who) are some of your recent favorite reads?

During my reading and selection months, I was reading so much poetry I couldn't believe it. Morning, noon, and night poetry. I was dreaming about poems. But what a rewarding experience! I have met poets literally around the world.

In the U.S., Jericho Brown's just released collection, Please is excellent. He's a young, Cave Canem, emerging poet. Look out for this guy! I wouldn't have known of his new book had I not met him through the After Shocks submissions. He answered my call for submissions, placed on the Cave Canem web site, and we've kept in touch. Susan Meyers' collection Keep and Give Away, which won the South Carolina Book Award and the SIBA Book of the Year Award is also a great read and a fine example of the new poetry coming out in the South. Another book that caught my attention during my reading was Martha Collins' most recent one Blue Front, a book-length view of tragic events, with huge scope, set the microcosm of her family. Unfortunately, I couldn't excerpt it for After Shocks, though Ms. Collins did submit several other poems, of which I selected two. Another recent discovery is the poetry of Joseph Enzweiler, published by Iris Press of Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He's a poet who lives near Fairbanks, Alaska, works half the year as a carpenter and stone mason, then as the long Arctic winter descends, he holes up in his primitive log cabin in Goldstream Valley north of Fairbanks and writes poetry on an old Royal Typewriter all winter long.And it's great stuff: deep, cold, brooding with insight! During selections, I read New Hampshire poet Pam Bernard's unpublished manuscript Blood Garden, a stunning real-time portrayal of her father's combat experience in World War I. Yes, WW ONE. He was an older father when Ms. Bernard was born. I selected a poem from the manuscript for After Shocks. Blood Garden is slated for publication by WordTech in 2010. Watch for it. It's another fine addition to the oeuvre of war poetry. I would also note Brian Turner's Here, Bullet (Alice James Book), which is by now quite well known, an excellent collection of war poetry informed by Turner's tour of duty in Iraq. One more—Isreali poet Rachel Tzvia Back's third collection On Ruins and Return, extraordinary, moving work steeped in the everyday activities of Israeli Jews and Arabs, living and dying side-by-side in Galilee.

There are four excellent collections from London publisher Ambit Books that I would call must-reads for any American poetry lover who would like to expand his/her reading into exciting new areas. This series is called Poets Here from Elsewhere and features four poets living in the U.K. who have left their homelands because of politics, persecution, or poverty. The books are Sir Winston Churchill Knew My Mother by Indian poet Satyendra Srivastava; Bells of Speech by Kurdish poet Nazand Begikhani, who fled Iraq after her brothers were killed in the chemical bombing of Halabja in 1988; memories of summers in brist near gradac and other poems by Bosnian poet Sonja Besford, who fled Bosnia after the civil war there, and A Day Within Days by Liu Hongbin, who was exiled from China when his poetry was posted around Tiananmen Square during the uprising there in 1989. All four of those books were written in English. I happened to be reading these four collections when I conceived After Shocks, and they opened the anthology's door to the world.

An excellent anthology that I came across during my reading, which I would highly recommend, again to expand beyond the normal reading a typical American reader usually gravitates toward: Six Basque Poets, published by Arc Publications in the U.K. It's phenomenal reading, with several excellent poets within, whom you would never, ever come across anywhere else. I found Bernardo Atxaga's poem "Death and the Zebras," and as I read it, felt shivers up and down my spine, and I knew I needed this poem as the final poem for After Shocks. The publisher, Arc Publications, was a nice discovery. It has several in its "Six Poets from…." series. Check out the web site. You won't be able to resist buying a couple.

Robert, I could go on and on. These are just a few of many, and I hate to call them out because there are others just as good. There are so many excellent poets out there whom I discovered during my reading, poets I never would have come across except for the submissions call. When you work on an anthology, you get exposed to many, many, MANY poets whom you'd never in your life expect to read. It's taught me to reach out further and further, open up to ALL poets, everywhere.

You're the founding editor-in-chief of Web MD, the world's most widely used health website, and you now work as a freelance medical editor. Does your background in medicine help inform your own writing or with compiling this anthology?

My own writing tends toward the body, the physical, sometimes even going inside the body to root around or look back out at the world from in there. My unpublished ms. has the working title The Body Functions. I'm not afraid to work with medical diction. I find there's a nice music to it when used in the right spot. I like to confront the diseases that break us down. I like to question the conventional wisdom. My approach, even in poems I've written about my first wife's death, uses stark clinical details. I feel that my 15 years of writing and editing health and medicine have given me some feeling for both the strength and fragility of this sack of bone and tissue we are blessed and cursed to live within. I think that experience colors about half of my published work, but there are other colors, tones, and moods in my work, too. I also was a scholarship college football player, and I've written some poems about all the concussions I suffered, kind of an interesting combination of medicine and athletics.

I'm certain my career as a medical editor informed the compilation of After Shocks. But there are no clinically descriptive poems in After Shocks. Where I believe it had an effect is that I have this sense of wonder when I look at us—human beings. I am attracted to poems that exhibit that same sense of wonder. We are truly a marvel. So fragile, yet so strong. The strength is not only physical. We possess a resilience within us that literally forces us to want to live. Of course, all forms of life possess this, don't they? Life wants to continue living, and life will alter itself to continue living. You can see this clearly in real time in viruses' behavior over their rapid generational evolution. Deadly viruses quickly evolve to lesser virulence so that they don't kill too many potential hosts, thus continuing their own source of livelihood. Once life takes root, it doesn't want to be uprooted. But we have something other life forms don't have…a big brain, the seat of a clever mind. Most of us use it to survive, no matter what horrors happen to us. Reading some of the poems in After Shocks makes me clearly understand that there truly are no limits to what we can survive. Just one chapter would illustrate this point: Recovery from Loss of Child. Reading the submissions for that chapter drove me to tears some days. I have children. I can't imagine the devastation of this loss. But these poets have survived what may be the worst loss of all. One of the forewords to After Shocks was written by therapist Nicholas Mazza, who lost his son in a car wreck. Dr. Mazza, who is editor of Journal of Poetry Therapy, writes: "Not a day goes by that I don't think of Chris or try to do something in remembrance of him…although there will always be an empty space on anything that I write, I remind myself that reflection can become remembrance, and this becomes a legacy for those who have gone before us. It is through poetry and story that we create meaning and form relationships."

Of course, a few of us are not equipped to survive, and those unfortunate ones choose to end their lives: facing illness, from grief, after abuse, fighting addiction. Who can blame them? It's hard and at times, can be hopeless. I've come to see that a life-shattering event has two outcomes: You either make it or you don't, and if you don't the alternative is the end of all hope. And a few of us go down that road. Fortunately, not that many. Most of us would rather continue living. Life wants to live. That's part of what I've learned as a medical editor.

So for After Shocks selections, I focused on that kernel of hope, that ray of recovery, that evidence that life wants to live. In some selections, it's in the air even as carnage surrounds the narrator. In others, it's years down the road from the event. But it's there, in each poem.

You self-published this book under Sante Lucia Books. Could you speak a little on why you decided to go this route? Also, do you plan on publishing more titles under this imprint in the future?

In one word, control. I'm glad I did it this way, because I was in total control the entire way. I had such a clear vision for what I wanted to do, had I gone with an established publisher, the publisher would have filtered my vision through its own. Compromises would have watered down my vision.

But I almost did go with a publisher. I came awfully close, and now, I know that it would have been exactly the wrong move. Publishers work more slowly than glaciers move. This anthology—388 pages, 152 poems, 115 poets, 15 nations—went from an idea to bound pages in 18 months. Triple that if a publisher is involved. Fugedaboudit!

There was a small, but well-respected, publishing house who had agreed to publish After Shocks. We reached a verbal agreement after a meeting on November 1, 2007, when I showed him an early draft of the manuscript. Then, I never heard back from that publisher again, even after repeated emails. He was so very enthusiastic, said a contract was coming. I've since heard a rumor that he has taken seriously ill or that his company may have taken seriously ill. He's elderly. Maybe he up and died? I mean, you think the worst when there's no communication.

When I didn't hear back, I moved ahead. I could not wait. I had a publishing date in mind, Autumn 2008, and I wanted to move quickly.

I had already formed Sante Lucia Books as a dba of the company I have for my freelance medical editing work, so I was prepared from the outset to do this alone, and I will freely and openly admit, I'm glad I did. I love to have complete and total control. I would drive any other publisher nuts. This is MY idea, and MY book, and I wanted to do it exactly MY way. I am already an editor, and a darn good one, so why would I need an editor from a publisher looking over my shoulder? On the publishing side, I'm learning a few things along the way, and I contracted with Kevin Watson, publisher at Press 53 in Winston-Salem, NC, to work with me on the design, production, and printing. I have absorbed a lot of marketing over the years, having been the creative partner with some great marketing minds during my career, so I'm familiar with marketing and publicity, so I felt somewhat equipped to work those angles. Some things I'm learning as I go, and they tend to be the lowest, but most unnerving, details. For example, After Shocks, the book, weighs 1 lb. 6 oz, in its bubble wrapped envelope. Well, your postman will not takeanything heavier than 13 oz., because Homeland Security has deemed 13 oz. as the weight of a bomb that can bring down an airplane, according to my USPS carrier. What that means, in a practical sense, is that I must hand carry each and every book I mail to my post office in person, hand them over the counter, so they can be verified and stamped as "non-suspicious mail." And I discovered to my chagrin that not all postal clerks are trained to do that correctly, resulting in some copies bouncing back to me like rubber bombs, er balls. I feel like I'm a character in a Kafka novel when I carry these stacks of books to the PO. I can only carry two full boxes at a time without herniating a disc, so that means daily trips to the PO and waiting in line, which is one big, time consuming pain in the butt. Hey, would I avoid that with a big publisher taking over this anthology? You bet. But I still love it.

My imprint is named after my two children. Lucy, whose given name is Lucia, pronounced in the Italian way, loo-CHEE-ya, and Sam whose given name is Sante, pronounced in the Italian way, SAN-te. They didn't charge me a licensing fee, and for that I employ them as envelope labelers and stuffers, when they're not doing homework, playing hockey or tennis, or taking dance lessons, which seems like all the time. So, since the publication of After Shocks, I've been demoted from Editor to Mail Room Clerk!!! But I love it. I love having ALL the control over EVERYTHING. I embrace the mindless work of placing stamps and labels on envelopes. It's a nice break from reality.

Another publisher would have screwed this up somehow, taken two years longer, designed a lousy cover. I had, still have, a precise vision for this anthology, and I needed to execute that vision to the last dot on the page. For the good and the bad. Hey, there are three typos in the first printing, and those are completely my fault and have already been corrected in second printing. But any good that devolves from After Shocks, that's also my doing.

I wouldn't give up this much fun to a publisher for a million dollars. No way.

And, c'mon, realistically, is Norton or Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux or even Copper Canyon really going to want an anthology edited by someone not named Donald Hall or Louise Glück or Billy Collins or you-know-who-big-name in poetry? I'm not a twig from the Cambridge Tree.

Plans for the future for Sante Lucia Books? Yes. I have plans in the works. Yes. I will be publishing other titles in the future, but right now, I'd rather not discuss them in too much detail. I'm both superstitious and part Sicilian. If I don't jinx it by talking about it, then someone might steal the ideas. There may be a traditional collection or two in Sante Lucia Books' future. On the other hand, I have some intriguing ideas to explore vertical markets in poetry, which I don't believe have been explored by other publishers. My media experience tends to be non-traditional, outside-the-box work, so much of my planning for the future of Sante Lucia Books will be in this vein.

How have you gone about promoting this book?

I have this feeling that I am digging 10,000 holes. Most will be empty, but I will find gold at the bottom of three of them, and some others will have some loose change, lost and covered over by years of dirt.

Basically, I'm focusing marketing efforts on readings, personal appearances, and getting the book into the hands of every media outlet, editor, reviewer, producer that I can. I follow up on every single lead, every idea, every suggestion offered by anyone.

At the outset, I developed an extensive advertising plan and set aside a budget. However, I've scrapped that plan almost completely. Instead, I've spent the money on a book publicist, and a very good one, Marjory Wentworth. So far, it's working out well. Together, we've set up readings in Charleston, Charlotte, Atlanta, Boston. For the Charleston reading on September 18, Ms. Wentworth set up two live TV spots and an article in the Sunday arts section of the Charleston daily newspaper. The attendance at the reading was the largest for poetry ever at the library there. Eight After Shocks contributors from South Carolina read there. November 9 coming up: Charlotte. This has the makings of a very large reading. There will be 11 contributors reading. The local paper is planning an advance story. [note : I'll have more on this in a week or so…] We'll do the same for Atlanta on March 11, 2009, and Boston on May 2, 2009. We're looking to fill in the open dates with readings in other cities: SF/Portland/DC/NYC. We are scheduling readings where contributors tend to cluster in groups of 5 or more. I'm working with an agent in London to host a reading for the 10 British poets for sometime in 2009. I'll be heading a panel of contributors who will read their After Shocks work at the South Carolina Book Festival. I'm considering doing a panel at the AWP in Denver in 2010. There is a distinct marketing advantage to having 115 contributors. There are 115 potential sales people out there pulling for After Shocks. And they have been sending me some great ideas. And bless them all, they've been very willing to come to read whenever I've asked.

We've sent out a couple hundred books to reviewers and various media people. The results are just starting to materialize in coverage. Three newspaper articles so far. Those two TV appearances. I'll be doing an interview in November for Georgia Public Broadcasting, which will run twice, the second time right before the Atlanta reading. This, of course, is local, not national publicity, but it's a step in the right direction. Once into the NPR door, I hope to leverage to other NPR stations, and maybe, if lucky, to the national level. I have this gut feeling that After Shocks is just beginning to get some media traction. It's still early, as After Shocks has only been out for two months, but Ms. Wentworth and I have done everything we possibly could, and I feel that the results are just starting to come in.

I've been booked into 6 dates for readings/discussions at church-based recovery groups or adult Sunday schools (with book singings at the churches' bookstores), and this has been a surprising development. I'm going to push this as far as I can. I'll go to any church, temple, synagogue, or mosque that invites me, and I'm working to spread the word in that sphere. I'll need to tap into networks of pastors, ministers, priests, imams, and rabbis. I haven't yet cracked the code here, but I have a sense that religious institutions are going to become very important in the marketing effort. After Shocks is not a religious book by any means, but I'm hearing very strong reactions from clergy who've seen the book to its underlying theme of the resilience of the human spirit. These church-based readings/discussions take poetry out of the realm of the typical poetry audience and into the realm of people who might not read poetry that often, but might react to it emotionally as a spiritual experience. A strong selling point here, of course, is my own personal story. Ms. Wentworth has taught me to recognize the promotional value of that and to weave me and the book into one story. The National Association of Poetry Therapists has also been a strong supporter, using its email list to publicize readings.

Other publicity—you've graciously asked me to answer questions on this blog! Maybe there are other bloggers out there, too!

I may spring the money for an advertisement or two in the near future. I'm seriously considering a Poetry Daily sponsor box on its home page. The cost seems efficient for the reach. However, I'm not yet convinced that advertising results in sales. Readings, personal appearances, word-of-mouth definitely results in sales.

If you could pass on one piece of advice to poets, what would it be?

Keep at it. No matter what.

I rejected many good poems for After Shocks simply because there was insufficient space. I could have published a 500-page anthology. Editorial decisions do not necessarily reflect upon quality. Editors' preferences are as numerous as the stars. Keep searching the heavens for your star.

If you could pass on one piece of advice to people suffering from life shattering events, what would it be?

Recovery cannot be prescribed. There are no rubrics, no roadmaps, no matter how many books you read. Recovery is not bottled like cough medicine. I hesitate to give anyone direct advice on this, because events that shatter lives—death of a loved one, divorce, exile, acts of war, abuse, addiction, etc.—cause unquantifiable, huge amounts of stress and horror and doubt, especially right at the beginning. From my own experience and from a distance of 23 years, I can say that what helped me most is that I realized I had to embrace the pain, let it wash over me, invite it inside, make it a part of me. It's very difficult, but I've come to believe that the longer you fight it, the harder it's going to be to come to some sort of new balance. And recognize this: After such an event, you will never be the same person. That person who you were—is gone forever, so give up trying to get back to normal. Normal is going to be something new and different. Maybe not as good, but maybe better. But if you don't open up to it, the road is longer and more painful that it needs to be. I had expected to reach some closure at some point, but I have discovered that there is no closure. Not really. Recovery goes on forever. Recovery became part of my spirit, part of that new level of stasis, that new "normalcy." I'm 23 years out from the death of my first wife, and though I'm at peace with who I've become, I feel like I'm still recovering from that event. I still bear the mark of a widower. I have started a new marriage and we have two lovely children. I still think about Lana and experience grief in some form every day.


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