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A way with words

Anna Mebel's well-traveled childhood produces a poet


Anna Mebel, an intern and poet-in-residence at the Harn Museum, at the “Much Ado About Portraits” exhibit.

Erica Brough / Staff photographer
Published: Thursday, August 1, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, July 25, 2013 at 11:53 a.m.

As Anna Mebel now knows, just uttering the word “poetry” can scare off a crowd of people. Asking strangers to write it and share their work with others? That invokes a whole new level of “torture.”

At 20 years old, Mebel is one of the Harn Museum of Art's poets-in-residence. She came up with a novel idea for the grand opening of the David A. Cofrin Asian Art wing (which opened in March 2012): invite museum attendees to write stanzas of poetry inspired by the Japanese form known as “renga.” Simply put, one person writes a stanza, and the next person picks up on that theme and continues with another stanza, and so on.

“I was initially skeptical as to whether Anna's poetry project for opening day would work ... I quailed,” says her mentor Debora Greger, Professor Emerita at the University of Florida and a fellow poet-in-residence at the Harn. “We learned the hard way on opening day — don't ask people if they'd like to sit down and write ‘poetry.'”

To get people fired up about writing, Mebel and Greger unrolled two blank “scrolls” atop long tables just outside the new wing of the museum. Soon enough, people were drawn to the interactive exhibit — and the inviting expanse of blank white paper. With a little encouragement from Mebel and Greger, visitors began to write.

“A Chinese student was persuaded to write down a famous ancient poem she knew from memory in her native language. We spelled words for kids. Kids too young to write drew,” adds Greger.

After a slightly bumpy start, the exhibit and grand opening activities were deemed a success. That resulted in the creation of the “poet-in-residence” role for both Greger and Mebel, which includes assisting with Museum Nights activities, and writing poetry for new exhibits like the “Much Ado About Portraits” exhibit, on display at the Harn through Sept. 8.

For those who know Mebel, the outcome of the event and the emergence of her new job are not surprising.

“[Anna] knows what she wants/likes/wants to do. She has unusual vision for a scholar of her age,” says Allysa B. Peyton, curatorial associate for Asian art at the Harn Museum, who worked with Mebel during the opening.

Her mentor, Greger, agrees. “She's mature for her age, very smart, very responsible, very resourceful, modest, with a fine sense of irony and humor. She very quickly showed me that I can always count on her to meet a deadline — ahead of time and with more than was asked for.”

That drive is one of the reasons Mebel is now editor of the University of Florida's Tea literary magazine (funded by student government and available for free on- and off-campus).

“One of the first things I did when I got [to UF] was to search out a literary magazine,” she says. It was her good fortune that Tea's previous editor was getting ready to graduate, and Mebel took over.

This fall, Mebel will be an incoming senior at the University of Florida majoring in art history and English. Like many 20-year-olds around campus, she enjoys dabbling in a few hobbies and getting together with peers.

“I watch a lot of movies, do yoga, and hang out with friends. I played the piano for nine years, but I kind of quit since I came to college … In Gainesville, I hang out in coffee places like Volta a fair amount,” she adds.

Unlike many college students, however, Mebel has spent much of her young life abroad, traveling and living in five different locales: Russia (where she was born), Japan, Atlanta, Georgia, Taiwan and finally Miami, Florida — where she has lived with her parents for the past 10 years.

After living in such exotic lands, Mebel can speak three languages: English, Russian (her native tongue) and Chinese, although she admits her Chinese is “a bit out of practice.” No matter, it was her love of learning that led to languages and poetry.

“I've always traveled a lot, so books were a nice haven,” Mebel says. “Languages in particular are fascinating … poetry is a nice way to think of languages and all the traveling I did.”

That travel was due, in part, to her father Alexander Mebel's career as a physical chemist and now professor at Florida International University. Her mother, Tatiana, is a small business owner who sells machines that make plastic bags.

Although her childhood travels may have been a bit unusual, Mebel plans to keep her roots planted here in Gainesville for a bit longer. Her next step? Pursuing a master of fine arts in poetry at the University of Florida. She's so focused on her goal that she plans to continue to the MFA program straight through, if she is accepted.

“Some of my friends are taking a year off. I've just always enjoyed school,” she shrugs, explaining her decision to press forward.

That doesn't mean she hasn't caught the travel bug, however. This summer, Mebel traveled to a remote farm in Western France to help pick fruit — and to immerse herself in a new culture and language.

“I contacted WWOOF [Worldwide Opportunities to Work on Organic Farms]. It's a program that connects volunteers and farmers all over the world,” she says, noting that her friends have used the same program in the past. “They provide food and room and board in exchange for labor.”

Despite not speaking the native language, Mebel was positive about the experience in France — much as she is about her future.

“I'd like to eventually teach at a university, or perhaps translate Russian novels or poetry,” she says with a smile.

Today it looks as though she may follow in her father's footsteps by remaining in academics, but who knows what the future holds? Should she pursue a different route, her colleagues believe she is destined to find success with the written word.

“Anna is a writer, no matter what career path should she choose,” declares Peyton.

Plum Girls by Anna Mebel

after a portrait of Tsuda Umeko (1864-1929)

I

Plum girl, if I could have asked

what kind of branch you held,

gray-eyed and serious, you would have told me

Prunus mume, deciduous, flowering midwinter.

At nine, round-faced, you had come to America.

Who painted you, eighteen, the year you left?

Beneath your kimono a corset bloomed.

Petticoats and stockings you refused to give up.

Removing your shoes to enter a home not your own —

absurd! O to be what Reverend Beecher called for,

a lady who held an opinion of her own!

Umeko, when did you start dreaming in English?

II

In Moscow my last name meant furniture

but in Taipei, it turned to mei.

Six, I practiced the strokes that made plum,

falling asleep at my desk during the meiyu.

From tangled characters, copied, recopied,

my dream drifted to the forest of birches

that covered the town of Father's birth —

two whole hand-widths away on my inflatable globe.

Because Mother could never buy shoes

that fit her large Ukrainian feet,

she packed me up. Back in Chernoglovka,

we planed and sanded our surname

until it fit into Russian again.

In Taipei, Father labored on beneath a plum tree,

but I no longer made up stories in Chinese.

Plum Girl, you returned to America.

Your Bryn Mawr classmates wore street shoes indoors.

They took you for a princess

as you spoke of the Japanese woman,

a beauty as pinched as a bonsai tree

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