As part of the 2021 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Beth Ann Fennelly in response to a video of her reading her poem “Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding” aloud. Beth Ann Fennelly wrote letters back to four of these students; their letters and her replies are included below.
Beth Ann Fennelly also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Dear Readers of “Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding,”
When I was asked to contribute a poem to this project, I had a hard time choosing which poem to pick. Eventually I went with this poem from my first book because I wrote it when I was not too much older than you are now—I was twenty-two. Some of you asked if the poem is autobiographical, and it sure is. I’m very close with my former college roommates, and one of them, Carmen, got married during my first year of graduate school. I was working as a teaching assistant, making $8,000 a year, which is to say, I was broke. Actually, that’s a lie. At that point, you’d have to give me money for me to be broke. Anyway, Carmen asked me to write a poem for her wedding, which was such a sweet gesture—she’s always supported my writing habit and in college would listen patiently while I read her whatever I was working on, which had probably been composed through a scrim of tears, fueled by red wine and filched cigarettes, after some boy had broken my heart. Which is to say: bad. I was bad. But dear sweet affirming Carmen never did a thing but encourage me. God, I love her.
So when she asked me to write her a poem, I wanted to, if for no other reason than it could serve in place of a wedding present, which I couldn’t afford to buy her.
So I tried. I really did. But the type of poem that is appropriate to read at a wedding is optimistic and celebratory. And those feelings were nowhere to be found in my wrung-out heart, because my parents were getting divorced after twenty-nine years of marriage. In most ways, I’m lucky to have had so many years with a stable family; by the time my folks got divorced, I was already living on my own, so there was less physical and emotional disruption to my life than if I was a child who had to swap houses every weekend, or get involved in a nasty custody battle, etc. But my ability to believe in unending love, my hope for my own future of marital bliss—erased completely. If people married almost thirty years can still stop loving each other, does love even exist?
So I told Carmen I couldn’t write her a poem.
Instead I wrote “Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding,” secretly. I didn’t show it to her until much later.
And I didn’t give her a wedding gift, either, not even a generic set of steak knives, like I threatened—I couldn’t afford to.
But this story has a few important updates.
I mentioned above that I was a few months into my graduate degree, an MFA I was earning at the University of Arkansas. And I had already made a few good friends. One of them, a sweet guy named Tommy, made me feel so comfortable that I started sharing my work with him. He listened to my poems as kindly as Carmen. And we became friends, then good friends, then best friends, and we still are. Tommy is my husband of twenty-three years, and we have three kids, and we still like each other about 98.6% of the time. So maybe that’s one reason I have a soft spot for “Poem Not to Be Read at Your Wedding,”—it was written in this narrow window in which there already was a Tommy, though he was not yet MY Tommy. Ahead of me: love, the big love. As it is, I hope, ahead of you.
The second update is this: years later, the St. Louis public transportation system printed some poems on posters for their buses, and they chose my poem. So for her fifteenth anniversary, Carmen received a copy of the poem at last, in the form of a framed poster, which hangs in her house in South Bend.
Oh, and I even gave her a set of steak knives, for reals.
Thank you, all of you, for reading my poem and writing to me. These days of no hugs, no interaction with strangers, all smiles hidden behind masks—these days can be a bit lonely-making. Your letters—I read them all, and was de-lonelied, profoundly. Words chosen with care and written with a desire to be honest can do that, can build a human connection that helps with the lonelies. This I know. And you do, too, or you wouldn’t have written me.
With the hope that somehow the universe will bring us the chance to meet (somehow, somewhere) in person,
Beth Ann Fennelly,
Poet Laureate of Mississippi, 2016-2021