Faculty Profile: Helena Mesa
“I can’t imagine not writing and I can’t imagine not teaching.” The English professor helps Albion students find their voices as authors and poets.
Dr. Helena Mesa finds joy in engaging her students in a 10-minute discussion of how one word or line break can change the meaning of a poetic line. But the professor of English is especially happy about the nature of a place like Albion College, where she can see the much larger and longer arc in her students’ work.
“I love that moment with a senior who is writing an Honors thesis,” Mesa shares, “and they say, ‘Remember when I was a first-year student and I wrote that poem about bacon? I just found it again, and it was terrible.’ I tell them, ‘No, it was a good poem for where you were at that time.’ It’s exciting to see that growth and development.”
For Mesa herself, it took a few years of college before she uncovered an underlying passion for poetry. “I wanted to do biology or pre-med, and I took Calculus for Math Majors,” she recalls with a laugh. “I had always written stories and in college I got into a creative writing course my first year, after a graduate assistant saw my work. I took a writing course almost every semester. But I didn’t get serious about English until my senior year.”
Similarly, connecting with the art of teaching was a bit of a surprise as well. “I was in graduate school and I had no interest in teaching; it was just a job,” Mesa says. Yet something clicked, and since 2003 her work has focused on helping young writers at Albion find their voices as authors and poets.
And while she takes pride in mentoring many dedicated poets, Mesa says she particularly enjoys those students who may be a little anxious about working with her.
“I always have a range of students in the Introduction to Creative Writing course. A lot will come in who are scared of poetry; they think it’s this mysterious box they have to unlock,” she explains. “By the end of the semester, a lot of them tell me they now understand how poetry gives voice to human experiences, and they learn to appreciate it even if they don’t continue to write it themselves.”
Dedicated to the Craft
Mesa’s own writing and scholarship revolve around poetry and the teaching of poetry. With two writers she met in graduate school, Mesa edits the online journal Mentor and Muse: Essays from Poets to Poets, a unique resource for both poetry students and established writers. Each essay about an element of poetic craft is accompanied by poems that illustrate that topic and a writing prompt to help readers practice it themselves.
“It’s a labor of love,” says Mesa, who is also at work on her second book of poetry, inspired by a trip she, her sisters and her parents took to Cuba decades after her parents had to leave the country.
“It was emotionally important for our family identity and understanding,” she says. “Many of the poems address the theme of distance—geographic, emotional, generational and cultural. I think, now, the separations caused by COVID and the pandemic will find their way in, too.”
To be successful, Mesa tells her students to “write, write, write, write.” It’s advice she follows herself. “I can’t imagine not writing and I can’t imagine not teaching,” she says. “This is what I want to do.”