Message by berserk message my inbox fills up with fragments of poems, jpegs of fiery abstract paintings, broken English and Cantonese characters, until I begin to feel stoned. You probably won’t have heard of Ami Hsu (阿米, 1980- ) and, like any self-respecting genius, Ami doesn’t seem to care. From the tone of her emails, neither is she fussed about how I came across this unGoogleable novelist-librettist-painter-poet with no website from Taipei City. At the beginning of our correspondence I sense marked disengagement. No sign-off. No small talk. When an answer doesn’t come to her, she’s disinclined to search herself for one: “(Last question: I don’t know)”.
Ami’s becoming well-known in Taiwan thanks to Yen Hung-ya (閻鴻亞), pen name Hung Hung (鴻鴻), a Taipei City-based translator, publisher, filmmaker and theatre director, poet and editor who charged himself with reviving poetry as a medium to “recover and conquer the land that all [the] propaganda and official language occupy.” Hung Hung chose Ami as one of his poets for Off the Roll, Poetry +, a group who “use the written word to…make very simple but powerful statements about life or about what is human.”
Previously untranslated and still without a UK publisher, Ami was a tip-off from the Templer Collection award-winning poet and translator, Matt Bryden, who, as well as waxing lyrical about her poems and paintings, had also warned me, “I only actually met Ami once. I was teaching in a language school in Bath about seven years ago and I made her cry. She ran out of the classroom. At the break I told my principal, and he said, Ah, so you’ve met the poet then.” I’d also read hazy things about on-going depression and an “episode” of mental illness in London, but now that I was in contact with her, Ami was unnervingly composed.
“I was a psycho in the UK, it’s my fate: a gift to my creation and also a curse to my spirit. I was missing about ten days in the London street [sic] till my sister picked me up… I wrote the days into my novel and poems. The illusion occupied me, a mad world becomes so real. The experience is beautiful, wonderful, and scary.” Her “split mind” clearly drives her –the first collection of poems, To Sing, To Dance, To Be A Wolf, full-length novel – “poetic, chaotic and disordered” –and exhibition of paintings were all inspired by this ten-day-long schizophrenic episode on the streets of London when she was studying away from Taipei City.
Early on in our interview Ami describes herself as having been “broken to a poem”, and throughout the course of our exchange, it’s clear this isn’t an affectation. When I ask her whether she thinks mental illness can facilitate strong art her response is beautifully disorienting. If she begins an answer in prose, more often than not it runs into verse: “Yes. It’s strong but short like a firework display. You can’t always depend on illness to create or you’ll die for it very soon. I have a poem about this:
Meteors crossed the sky
Polished my back, haunches, rump…
And finally the silver horn on my forehead
But everything reverted to darkness …”
Perhaps it’s got something to do with her stilted English, or perhaps they are little flashes of genius (a diamond in the rough), but I start to read poems in everything she writes. I ask her about love and pain, and why they always appear inextricably in her poems and paintings: “Blink, and love becomes pain. See it poetically. Blink, becomes love again.
I return to the flotsam and jetsam Ami left in my inbox and spot a typo I hadn’t noticed before –“Hi Sophie, Please find attacked.” From the streets of London to Taipei, through love and pain (“Loving you/Made me the best comic actress”), she makes madness real – and so palpable it’s unsettling. It is little surprise that when I ask Ami if all her work is confessional, she answers, “Yes. I like the word “confessional”. I like Sylvia Plath.” There’s a type of precarious brilliance that, in the western world, critics and readers of poetry often associate with Plath, herself “broken to a poem”, and it’s a Plath line that sums up Ami’s rough talent best: “Perfection is terrible”.
The pamphlet, The Desire to Sing after Sunset (trans. Ingrid Fan and Matt Bryden) is a hybrid collection of paintings and poems from 2009 to 2012 and which will be self published early next year. Take a look at the paintings in the gallery below and read two longer poems underneath
Let them all rot
An apple browns
An old dog drowses
A candle burns till the end of the world
Flowers reincarnate through the seasons
Grandmother’s flesh becomes dirt
Clapped-out houses and old trees disappear through politicians’ tongues
Only this afternoon, we passed through a street of wedding dress shops,
a little light still to the day, half innocent
Fate swept me into a disused garden
Each flower had its own bitter fruit
Each portrait’s eyes welled
Through suffering we gradually mature
Tenderness and courage –
For example, a barber’s fingers
For example, being his wife
For example, losing poetry in daily life
I’ll be back soon,
Each disused day is worth remembering
Ami Hsu, Taipei City