Northeastern graduate student finds magic and purpose in Mass Poetry co-op

victor mendevil sitting on yellow stairs that say 'get writing' on them
Victor Mendevil, a Northeastern English grad student, is co-oping at Mass Poetry, a non-profit that uses poetry to connect and inspire. Mendevil organizes events that bring poetry into the community, giving writers, old and new, an opportunity to express themselves. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

“Every night I pray for luck / and let my body decide the rest.” -Victor Mendevil

Third grade was a “challenging time” for Victor Mendevil.

Unlike most kids, Mendevil wasn’t playing sports or running around the playground. He has myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune neuromuscular condition that significantly weakens his body. It made physical activity difficult and required regular trips to the hospital throughout elementary and middle school as he received countless treatments and surgeries.

It was also during this time that Mendevil first found poetry, the thing that would save him during an otherwise traumatic period in his life. From the moment his teacher introduced him to the words of Robert Frost and Maya Angelou, he knew there was no going back. This is what he wanted to do with his life.

“It was [giving] me a tool that I didn’t have to speak about the struggles I was going through and all the emotions and feelings that are often very hard to express without a medium,” Mendevil says.

Now, Mendevil is giving that same gift to the next generation of poets. A second-year English graduate student at Northeastern, Mendevil is using his co-op at Mass Poetry, a Boston-based nonprofit, and the poetic passion he’s had since third grade to bring people together through the power of poetry.

Mendevil works as an events and communications coordinator, helping Mass Poetry put on events like the Evening of Inspired Leaders, the organization’s biggest fundraiser of the year, and a series of poetry reading events for people under the age of 35. Although both events could not be more different in terms of their scale, Mendevil says they both still execute Mass Poetry’s mission of inspiring and teaching through the written word.

The Evening of Inspired Leaders brought together leaders from organizations like the Boston Foundation, Planned Parenthood, the Cambridge Health Alliance as well as educators, activists and writers for a night of poetry.

“It brings them together for a night to read their favorite poem and comment on how the poem relates to their own work or their own life,” Mendevil says. 

The connections between Mendevil’s life and poetry run deep. Moving across the country, from Seattle to Boston, was difficult, not only because it meant leaving home but because it meant having to find new connections in an unfamiliar place. 

In his poem “A Rag in the Sea,” Mendevil describes “a sinking ship, an old boat, a tattered sheet,” the remains of a shipwreck that have washed up somewhere unfamiliar.  “I am made from a lonely sea / I am covered in a moonlight compass,” he writes. “My chest should sing / should find the salt / in the melancholy of breath.”

His experience at Mass Poetry also helped him find what he had lost when he moved from Seattle to Boston to attend Northeastern: community. 

“Coming from not Boston, not the New England area, being a poet and having nowhere to start, I feel like this really integrated me very fast with the top artists, poets, publishers and really helped me gain a sense of support and community from these other writers and poets that I would not have had if I did not do this co-op,” Mendevil says.

Event planning was never a part of Mendevil’s plan for the future. Mendevil aims to pursue his Ph.D. in English and creative writing after finishing his master’s program in May 2023, with the hopes of becoming a professor and poet-in-residence. But Mass Poetry’s mission and work cut to the heart of Mendevil’s own story.

Mass Poetry has programs that give local teenagers, prisoners and students at underserved schools confidence in their own writing and, in the process, voice. Mendevil knows firsthand how valuable it is to express that inner voice. 

His poetry is personal, driven by his experience as someone with a mixed race background–his mother is white and his father is Latinx and a member of the Blackfoot people–as well as his condition. When he might struggle to express an idea verbally because he’s frustrated, confused or lost, the pen and page are there. 

“It’s very hard as a mixed race individual to pinpoint who you are a lot of the time,” Mendevil says. “That’s part of why I love poetry so much too because I feel like I can actually have all sides of me without having to prove anything, without having to attach myself to one or the other.”

For as personal as his poetry is, Mendevil has often felt a disconnect between his academic experience and creative aspirations prior to coming to Northeastern. But his co-op experience at Mass Poetry has helped illustrate that it’s possible to bridge that gap. 

“What I’ve taken away is that poetry and what I’m doing as a future educator isn’t just me writing and publishing an article in a scholarly journal–it’s beyond that,” he says. “It’s the interactions and the impact you’re making on students, the impact you’re making on your fellow writers and on all types of people. It’s about understanding the power of your words and both how to be careful with it but also really nourish it and nurture it.”

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