As part of the 2020 Dear Poet project, students around the country and the world wrote letters to Molly Fisk in response to a video of her reading her poem “Summer Lightning” aloud. Molly Fisk wrote letters back to five of these students; their letters and her replies are included below, along with several additional responses from students.
Molly Fisk also wrote a response to all of the participants of this year's Dear Poet project.
Thank you so much for writing to me about my poem "Summer Lightning." You saw a lot of themes in the poem that I wasn't thinking about at all when I wrote it. I'm not someone who analyzes as I write: I respond to the images in front of me and what I might know about a subject already.
In this case, the fire I'm speaking about did start with lightning igniting one branch, and then the branch lighting the rest of the tree on fire and starting a huge conflagration, which I read about in the newspaper (though the smoke covered my town a few days later). It seemed logical to me at the time: this is what lightning does, and how fire works, and that led me to think about another thing I don't like: the logic of the cat and the hummingbird, something that had happened a few hours before in my living room.
The idea of balance has always helped me get through hard times. That there can still be beauty while disaster is going on...that even while people I love are dying, others are being born. Lightning and fire are both beautiful and deadly. One of you asked the question: should humans interfere or interrupt the natural order. I think that has a complex answer. I'm fond of electricity, for instance, which we wouldn't have without damming rivers: a definite interruption of nature. Generally, I try to interfere as little as possible in the natural order, but I do try to keep my cats from eating birds by putting bells on their collars (which doesn't always work).
There's a lot of compromise involved in living. I hope you'll think about that as you wend your way through high school and college, if you're going to college. I believe in and appreciate balance, but the idea of two polar opposites: good/bad, right/wrong, that are absolute and always can be relied on isn't something I agree with. So many circumstances vary depending on the context, and so many times the answer to a question isn't either/or but both.
Thanks again for writing, and I wish you much good luck in your studies and patience with the virtual world as long as we have to put up with it.
All my best,
Molly Fisk reads "Summer Lightning" for Dear Poet 2020.
Dear Molly Fisk,
My name is Elizabeth. I am currently a junior at Nerinx Hall High School in St. Louis, Missouri. I am writing to you because your poem, “Summer Lightning” reminded me of an experience that I had. I live part time outside of Park City, Utah and while living there I have had my fair share of wildfire experiences. Your poem made me think back to one of the summers in which the fires were so bad, that while playing outside I had ash flying into my eyes. Even though the fires weren’t near us, they were so large that the ash was blinding people many miles away. It was shocking to me. Another summer I could see the smoke of a fire just miles away from my home, and all I could do was hope that the wind blew it the opposite way. Luckily, that fire was contained in time, but many of the fires I have seen have not been.
Wildfires like the ones I’ve seen and the one you describe in your poem give me a feeling of helplessness. I feel helpless about all of the people being forced to flee their homes and for all the animals running from a sometimes inevitable death. In your poem you recognize that inevitable death when you say, “If you think about joy long enough/maybe death will make sense: a matter of balance”. These lines really drew my attention, and are the main reasons that I am writing this letter. Your view on the balance of life and death intrigued me. I was interested in the meaning of the interaction between the hummingbird and the cat, and your acceptance of that interaction. Did you write about it to demonstrate how there is a balance, an order?
I would like to thank you for your poem and your reading of your poem. I listened to it early this morning and it gave me an entirely new perspective on life and death, and on cause and effect. Something about your poem seems so philosophical to me. In my first read it seemed quite difficult to understand, almost impossible. Then in my second read I felt like the meaning somehow became quite simple to interpret. Then to double check my analysis, I read it a third time, and in that read I decided that this poem has some simple story-telling properties, and yet it contained a much deeper and philosophical meaning. I genuinely enjoyed your poem and my experience with it.
St. Louis, MO
Thank you so much for writing to me about my poem "Summer Lightning." I'm sorry you've had so much experience of wildfire, but Park City is definitely part of the western terrain we share.
Yes, I was using the cat and the hummingbird as an example of the kind of order I see around me. One needs to eat, the other risks being eaten, like so many of us, and that's the logical balance that I see in the world, and have to accept, even when I hate it or find it maddening or tragic. Another version of the helplessness you mention around fire.
I'm glad you could see both the simplicity and complexity in the poem. I'm not a philosopher per se, but always interested in how things work, both concrete ones and abstract.
Thanks again for writing. Your letter was eloquent and clear, which makes me think you're a writer yourself. If that is so, please keep going. The world needs writers to make sense of what happens.
All my best,
Dear Molly Fisk,
My name is Emma, and I am in 8th grade at Tower Hill. In Mrs. Ashbrook’s English class, we have been focusing on poetry for the past couple weeks. I chose your poem because of the imagery and life it contained. From my initial reading of the poem, I liked the way that the close environment felt so calm, while in the distance a fire was raging. I could really picture the scenery throughout it. It gave me the impression of calm during the “storm” instead of calm after the storm. I also really like the diction used throughout. Words like haloed, drifted, and stalled add a layering of meaning on top of everything else.
As I kept rereading this poem, new ideas popped into my head. When you said that “if you think about joy long enough, / maybe death will make sense:” I reversed it and thought of the more a person thinks about death, the more they will cherish each joyful moment. Therefore, not letting anything go for granted. As you stated in the next stanza, it is a matter of balance. There is a reason to fear anything in life to a certain extent, but a person should live their whole life engulfed in fear. Balance is what keeps us sane.
After I had read the poem I was curious about its perspective. Who was the perspective of the poem from? This could change the meaning of the poem. If it was from a human, then they could be filled with anxiety about what they fire could do to their community, but If it was from an animal's point of view, they would not be as worried because animals live in the present. Humans focus too much about what is going to happen in the future rather than what is currently happening. The fly was peacefully enjoying itself while other animals were losing their habitat. Were the melting boats a hyperbole for how hot it was? How do you relate to this story and do you have a connection to Redding? Was this a poem inspired by your real life events? I know that many people have had to flee from their homes to escape the wildfires.
Another question I had was if the fire was symbolic for something? Even though wildfires are a current problem in today’s society, it could have a larger meaning for another problem. The meaning of a poem can change from when it was written to current events that are happening. Today, the fire could be symbolic of the coronavirus. During the first part of the virus, people were mainly just watching it happen on their television. Then, it came closer to where they were and it took over their lives. You say that “the wind the flames create // to brush another.” Meaning that people's contact with each other continues to spread the virus. That is the same as the trees on fire touching the fire and spreading it. It only takes time for something to take over. The pandemic captured the world just like the fire that captured the city.
I could not thank you enough for this beautiful poem. The second to last stanza really started to sum everything up. People drove off in their cars at nightfall because they did not know what the fire was going to do between then and morning. It was a good thing they did because the fire took over the city. A last question I had is that was the fire caused by the summer lightning? I made this connection when you said, “summer lightning ignites just one branch, / which bends in the wind the flames create.” And from the one branch the fire spread and it continued to move in the wind. This opened my eyes to new horizons and thoughts.
Thank you so much for writing to me about my poem “Summer Lightning.” I don't live very near Redding, but it is in my northern half of California. I wrote about it because we've had so many fires now and this was the one I was thinking about. It was indeed started by lightning.
I'm glad you caught on to the feeling of things being calm at home (fly, yogurt, etc.), but more chaotic out in the world (fires and escaping the fires). That part I did on purpose. Most of the time, though, I don't write with a lot of ideas in my head to begin with. I just start writing and see what happens. Every poet has her own style. And I'm so glad you liked haloed, drifted, and stalled... me too.
I like the way you reversed the joy and death idea, and yes it balances well that way, too, and balance does indeed keep us sane: something I try to focus on when things like Covid and politics throw me off.
The boats in Whiskeytown were actually melting, the fire was so hot all the wood burned and the plastic and metal melted. So I wasn't using hyperbole, it was accuracy, I'm afraid. A really horrible sight.
I wrote this poem in 2017, before the pandemic arrived, so I wasn't comparing fire to that, and mostly I write about what is in front of me. In this case I was thinking only of fire, but anyone reading a poem can find other meanings in it that make perfect sense. That's one of the things I love about poetry: it's a window, in a way. It shows us all sorts of things, and often more than the poet intended us to see.
I liked hearing how you approached the poem and where your thoughts went. You have a good mind and I hope you'll have fun learning more about poetry (and everything else).
Thanks again for writing, and good luck in your studies.
All my best,
Dear Molly Fisk,
My name is Kate. I am a student at Stoller Middle School in Portland, Oregon. This message is for you, about my thoughts on your poem, Summer Lightning. When I read Summer Lightning, I became enthralled by the imagery that your poem inspired. The poem made me think about the fires that Oregon struggled with almost 3 years ago, when a 15-year-old boy set off firecrackers in a gorge and started the Eagle Creek Fires as of September 2, 2017. The blaze was awful, burning for 3 months. It caused horrible air quality and turned the sun red. I remember starting fifth grade, and we weren’t allowed to go outside for recess, because the air had become so polluted with smoke. I can relate to the part in your poem where you talk about the fire slowly growing until the city is burning. The firecrackers grew from a small spark to an enormous wildfire. In my experience, though, it was also in the forest, not just the city.
I was wondering about you, writing the poem, and would like to ask: what life experiences or insights led you to write it? Did you experience a wildfire where you lived? Did you watch devastation destroy life around you? What situations did you live through that provoked such words in a poem?
This poem means a lot to me to know that someone else has experienced a wildfire in a way similar to how I did. Since the poem uses such vivid imagery, especially in the first stanza, I know that as the author, you have likely experienced a wildfire. I feel as though you included the part about death and balance, where fire consumes and kills because you wanted to bring more meaning and understanding to how much life becomes consumed in the blaze of a fire. I also felt deeply connected to your description of how there is an equilibrium in death due to the fact that after living things die, other things will come to regrow.
This makes me feel emotionally connected because back when the fires were burning, I was horrified at the loss of wildlife and plants in the blaze, especially the trees that had been living there for decades. Not only did nature suffer, but many people had been forced to run for their lives, or even risk their lives as they were putting out the fire. So many people had their lives put in jeopardy, whether the blaze had affected their jobs or if they were caught in the fire. The resulting damage left over a thousand homes were destroyed or damaged and burned about 282,000 acres. So many lives were affected and lost, and I still think about it at times.
It hurts to remember all the life, the human, animal, and plant lives, that were destroyed and damaged. But when I read your poem, the beautiful imagery you used to describe death associated with wildfires to make a comparison of balance after the death of anything gave me comfort. I always knew that the damage the fires caused would be undone, or that we would recover the best we could, but reading Summer Lightning put the regrowth of Oregon after the Eagle Creek Fires in a new perspective for me. Reading the poem feels like a soft assurance, even years later, that the loss of life will eventually be recovered and put into balance as the world grows and adapts. I appreciated reading your poem, and I am going to remember what I got from it for a long time.
Thank you so much for your lovely letter about my poem “Summer Lightning.” I'm sorry you had to go through a wildfire too, they're terrifying. And I'm glad reading the poem gave you comfort. I partly write in order to show people what I see and am thinking about, but I also partly write in hopes that somebody might find a little comfort or perspective in the poems.
I wasn't physically close to this one in Redding, it's about 200 miles away, but we've had some nearby and I've had to evacuate. I've lived under a lot of smoke from the fires that are distant, and yes, the sun turns red and you can't go outside.
You didn't say whether or not you're a poet yourself, but if you do any kind of writing, keep in mind how much those images at the beginning of the poem affected you. I think they're the key to connecting with readers, and they can be from any of our senses, not just sight/vision.
Thanks again for writing.
All my best,
Dear Molly Fisk:
My name is Joseph, a junior at Patapsco High School and Center for the Arts. I’m a part of the literary magnet and I really enjoy writing. Due to recent events with the coronavirus my school has moved online, it has been a big change and really hard to adjust. One of my more recent assignments was to focus on poetic voice and how poets establish voice and how it affects their writing.
During this project I read your poem “Summer Lighting.” The descriptions you used, and the idea of life’s balance and actions and consequences really stood out to me. The poem made me think of my own actions and the butterfly effect, how change comes suddenly and unexpectedly. Especially with this pandemic coming basically out of nowhere, your poem really helped me understand that complexity and how peace can be disaster in a second. Your poem starts with a tranquil description of a house in the mountains and a normal morning, besides the surprising line of “haloed in wildfire smoke” which didn’t catch my attention until I reread the poem and was a stark contrast from the peacefulness. The more noticeable tone shift is when you mention your cat eating a hummingbird and thinking about joy and death. After that your description continues and talks about balance and many animals being caught in the fire and displaced. So, you say that you’re not asking forgiveness for the hummingbird because you plant the flowers and water them and who else would come for their nectar. “In this world there is order wherever you look,” that is one of my favorite lines because it somehow gives a solution and some understanding for why disasters occur. I know that this poem is about a fire related natural disaster. However, I think there’s a larger message of understanding the chaos within the balance of life that anyone can appreciate who is struggling. Especially right now and the adjustment of quarantine and finding the balance of staying safe but also still enjoying life or the little things.
I have some questions about your poem. Did you always have this outlook about the balance of life, or did it take a disaster for you to feel this way? Why choose the animal imagery to describe balance, I’m sure there were a lot of humans being displaced during this so what drew you to the cat and hummingbird analogy? In the beginning you describe the morning and the animals being caught in the fire. Then, towards the middle you start using “I” and mentioning yourself but then towards the end you go back to descriptions. What made you include yourself, especially mentioning forgiveness or more specifically not asking for forgiveness?
My purpose for writing this letter was to get a better insight on your mindset while writing this poem and the tone you used. Thank you for your time, I really enjoyed reading your work, your imagery and outlook is something I really connect with. The voice of balance during chaos really gave me a sense of peace and community.
Thank you so much for writing to me about my poem “Summer Lightning.” I'm glad it spoke to you, especially around the idea of there being an innate sense of order even when things are chaotic.
My idea about balance didn't originate with this disaster, because I've seen so many, but the wildfire in Redding certainly reminded me of how there's balance everywhere if you look for it, and finding it can calm you down and make disasters easier to cope with.
I'm a pretty literal person and poet, so the cat and hummingbird image wasn't invented to support the poem's theme, it was happening in my living room while I was writing the poem. So I just stuck it in. Abstract ideas aren't easy to convey, in poetry or any other kind of communication, and I find it helps to have something ordinary and visual for people to hold on to when you're giving examples. If a human had been in my living room doing something that fit into the poem, I would have used that... I'm not against talking about humans. But in this case, no one was around but me and the cat.
That's an interesting point about the “I” coming into and then leaving the poem. My poems aren't always autobiographical, although some are (poems can be fictional, too). I wasn't asking forgiveness because I felt responsible for the bird's death... I was acknowledging my part in that death, and not expecting to be taken off the hook. I made choices (flowers, cat) and they had consequences (dead hummingbird). That's something I think about often... how what we do rolls out and has effects, some of which we might have been aiming for and some of which are unexpected and maybe not what we would wish for. I love hummingbirds. But it's all part of living, that these opposing events take place, and we have to make some sort of peace with them or we'll go nuts.
I'm glad you found some peace and community in the poem. Thanks again for writing, and good luck in your studies.
All my best,
Dear Ms. Fisk,
My name is Lizzy and I am a junior in Minnesota. Your poem stood out to me because of the references to nature. I like to spend a lot of time outside and in nature so I felt that it spoke to me from that perspective. Although when I first listened to your poem, I was a little confused, but the more I read it, a few things popped out at me.
I found your poem “Summer Lightning” insightful. When I read through it, I began to think of the themes of life and death and the balance of nature. The constant use of juxtaposition throughout the poem in comparing life and death, winter and summer, and water and fire enhanced these themes well.
The constant theme of the balance of nature reminded me of one summer at my cabin. One early morning, my mom and I saw a bald eagle dive into the river and drag a fish to the shore for its breakfast. It was extremely interesting to see an eagle’s natural hunt in the wild. This made me think of your poem because while the life of the fish ended, the eagle needed to eat, almost like the circle of life. The line “I am not asking forgiveness / for the hummingbird” reminded me of this because there was nothing that we could do for the fish, just as there was nothing that the speaker of the poem could do for the hummingbird when it was eaten by the cat (16-17). This reflects the balance of nature because in both cases, as one life ended, another was able to flourish. It is ultimately natural and should be left as is. I don’t believe that humans should interrupt the natural order because it would upset the balance of nature. Do you think that humans should be involved in the natural order?
While I noticed the other themes, there was still the mention of the lighting and fire that had me confused. I read the poem over a few more times and ultimately realized that it did indeed connect to the other themes that I picked out. Fire is a good representation for this poem because not only is it juxtaposed, but it can also represent both life and death. In the poem, the fire is born when the “summer lightning ignit[ed] just one branch” and yet later the speaker could see the smoke “of a small city burning” (24, 32). Similarly, the mention of lighting is interesting as well because of how powerful it is. It is something that people fear during a storm, and yet it is also frequently captured by photographers and something people watch in awe. Just as lightning is juxtaposed in real life, it also is in the poem as having the ability to start incredible fires, but that these fires can also result in death. The lighting is a representation of the power of nature, just as the fire is a representation of the balance of nature.
Based on this poem, I’m interested to know your views on nature, and on lightning and fire as well. Do you see lightning and fire as a symbol of fear and death or a symbol of life and beauty? Do you think nature should be feared or respected?
Thank you so much for writing to me about my poem “Summer Lightning.” You saw a lot of themes in the poem that I wasn't thinking about at all when I wrote it. I'm not someone who analyzes as I write: I respond to the images I'm seeing and what I might know about a subject already.
In this case, the fire I'm speaking about did start with lightning igniting one branch, and then the branch lighting the rest of the tree on fire and starting a huge conflagration, which I read about in the newspaper. It seemed logical to me at the time: this is what lightning does, and how fire works, and led me to think about the logic of the cat and hummingbird, something that had happened a few hours before in my living room (I love your eagle hunting his/her breakfast story).
I think nature is to be respected and feared both, probably equally — we don't get to choose one or the other. Lightning and fire are both beautiful and deadly. And in answer to your other question, should humans interfere or interrupt the natural order, I think that also has a more complex answer. I'm fond of electricity, for instance, which we wouldn't have without damming rivers: a definite interruption of nature. Generally, I'd like to interfere as little as possible in the natural order, but I do try to keep my cats from eating birds by putting bells on their collars (which doesn't always work).
There's a lot of compromise involved in living. I hope you'll think about that as you finish up high school (virtual or in person) in Edina, MN. It isn't good or bad, it's both, depending on the circumstances.
Thanks again for writing, and good luck in your studies.
All my best,
Dear Ms. Fisk,
I liked your poem Summer Lightening. You explain wildfires in great detail and how one small thing that may not seem dangerous can lead to bigger problems that are dangerous. I think the poem means that nature is powerful and that we don't have control over it. The part with the cat eating the hummingbird and you writing that any cat would leap at the chance to eat one, explains that this is just nature, it's the cat's instinct, we can't control nature.
This line is interesting: A house fly is walking across the table, six tiny feet leaving tracks in the yogurt. It makes me feel calm while all this bad stuff is happening around.
I know a little bit about wild fires, I know that the experienced animals that are native to that area know what to do when there's a fire, and fires bring rich soil to the ground that can make way for new plants that are nutritious for the animals. So wildfires can be good things or bad things, depends on the way you look at it.
I have some questions for you,
Why did you decide to write this poem?
Are you inspired by nature?
Why did you include the sentence and what does it mean: "If you think about joy long enough, maybe death will make sense"
Hope you know that I enjoyed your poem.
Dear Ms. Fisk,
Thank you for giving me insight into your world with Summer Lightning. I find the poem fascinating and feel that it shares a very important message—one of hope.
My name is Talia, and I am a high school freshman from Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although I have grown up around writing and find myself writing frequently for school, I have never taken the time to explore poetry independently. After reading Summer Lightning for the first time a few days ago, I have a newfound appreciation and respect for poetry. Your poem has greatly impacted me and caused me to examine (or possibly reexamine) some aspects of my life. I am often dwelling on the past, or yearning for the future. I have interpreted Summer Lightning as a reminder to live in the present, like the hummingbird enjoying the flower’s nectar, even though the bird was unsure of its fate.
As Coronavius has presented a unique situation for much of the world, it has changed routines and lifestyles and caused much uncertainty. I have been reflecting on that face that just a month ago I was on a beach with many people and unfazed by the possibility of brushing arms with someone. I am also looking to the future for when life will return back to normal, or I will be able to at least feel some sense of certainty. However, as Summer Lightning has taught me, I should enjoy what is happening at this moment. For example, I am thankful for the increased amount of time I am able to spend with my family. A dry winter, and a car backfire of summer lightning ignites just one branch, which bends in the wind and the flames create to brush another. A few hours later, it’s 45 square miles and uncontained. These lines speak very well to our current times; they suggest that life can change all too quickly and that one person’s actions affect many others—reiterating the idea that we are “all in this together.”
Additionally, I found significance in the lines, “If you think about joy long enough, maybe death will make sense: a matter of balance” and “In this world there is order wherever you look: cause, effect, logic and consequence.” I understood these phrases to mean that good things will eventually come to an end and that there is a reason for everything. While seemingly dark, I believe these ideas hold a lot of truth. We must understand the magnitude of our choices and know that even the smallest of actions have large consequences. Following the theme of holding out hope, the smallest of actions can also have positive impacts.
After reading Summer Lightning, I am intrigued by what inspired you to write this piece. Does this poem mirror an experience of yours? Also, I was puzzled by the line, I am not asking forgiveness from the hummingbird. What was your intention behind this line? I see many references to animals. Were the species of animals mentioned intentional?
While I am unsure of what the future will hold, I know that I will be able to connect with poetry and find comfort within it—in whatever way that may be. I hope to try my hand at writing poems.
Thank you for sharing your work.