Dear Ms. Nelson,

I read your poem “Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church and I love it so much that I wanted to write to you about it. What I love about your poem is that it tells a story.  While I was reading it, it made me curious about what happened to the people in the poem. For example, I was curious about how the young woman was marrying a man who was not educated, even though she was educated. I wondered how her mother, father, and family feel about their daughter getting married to someone who cannot read or write, although this man is an experienced carpenter.  I have to say that I loved that it was about a wedding and how you told that two different people with different backgrounds can come together and fall in love.

What really grabbed my attention was how you introduced the bride and groom and how you wrote “daughter of this person” or “son of that person”. It grabbed my attention because that is not usually how we introduce someone today.  What also really grabbed my attention was that in the end it said that the groom was descended from kings. I thought that was very interesting because his descendants must have been taken from a noble family in Africa.

In my language arts class we just finished our poetry unit. I can tell you that my language arts teacher made me love poetry even more. In the beginning of our unit we talked about line breaks. As I was reading and listening to your poem, I noticed how you used line breaks. I liked where you used them because it emphasized your poem.

As I was reading, I had a few questions in mind. How did you come up with the topic? How did you name the poem? Did you know a church with that name? Did you write this poem to prove a point? I really enjoyed and loved your poem and I cannot wait to read more of your poems!        

Grade 5
Bloomfield Hills, MI

Dear Paloma,

[Do you know the song by Caetano Veloso called “Paloma”? It’s very beautiful. You can hear Caetano singing it on Youtube. Harry Belafonte recorded it in the Fifties; it’s always been one of my favorite melodies, though I don’t know or understand the lyrics.]

But, to the point: I’m very glad you like my poem so much that you wrote to me about it. I’m glad that you see that the poem is telling a story. I’m sorry I didn’t give a little introduction to the poem before I read it on the video. The poem is taken from my book of poems called My Seneca Village. Seneca Village was a small community of free black people in Manhattan, which was started in 1825 and thrived until it was destroyed as part of the creation of Central Park, in 1857. My book tells the stories of people I imagined living there.

“Thompson and Seaman Vows, African Union Church” is an imaginary wedding announcement in an imaginary newspaper. In writing it, I imitated real wedding announcements that appear nowadays every Sunday in The New York Times. The real, contemporary wedding announcements always begin with the names of the couple, the date of the wedding and the name of the person who officiated the ceremony. Then there is a paragraph about the bride: where she was educated, and where she works. Then a paragraph about her mother and father and their professional histories. Then the groom, his education and his work, and then information about this mother and father. If you read a lot of them, you see they follow a formula.

In the case of the couple in my poem, they are free, living in Seneca Village, New York, but the wedding takes place in 1847, a time when most of the black people in America where enslaved. In 1847 there were not many opportunities for black Americans to go to school. People who learned to read taught other people to read. That’s why the bride in the poem has been “educated by her literate friend.” In a couple of other poems in the book we learn that she loves Shakespeare, the great writer she knows (books were expensive; she wouldn’t have been able to own a collection of Shakespeare’s works, and libraries were usually available only to white people) only from seeing two of his plays performed by the African Theatre Company, in all-black productions (blacks would probably not be able to go to a white theater). But the fact that she can read and that she knows a little bit about the greatest poet of the English language makes her educated enough to teach in the Seneca Village school.

As for the groom, he is not exactly educated, but he can do math computations (i.e., measure a board and know where to cut it to fit a space in the building of a house) and he is a good carpenter (in other words, he has skills that translate into earning a good living). Although his mother was “slaved to an early death,” she did not forget that she and her people were stolen from a land that had its own greatness, and she passed on that knowledge and pride to her son, by telling him that he was descended from—as you put so well—“a noble family in Africa.”

Thanks for noticing the line breaks!

The topic came because I was trying to write poems that presented a panorama of village life, so I wanted to include a wedding. I found the names in the U.S. Census records of Seneca Village, but I invented the characters, the love story, and the wedding. There was a church with that name in Seneca Village. I’m so glad you loved my poem!

Best Wishes,

Marilyn Nelson

learn more about seneca village

read more dear poet letters 2017