Ami Hsu, Taipei City

For our translation correspondent, meeting a schizophrenic Taiwanese poet-painter over email proves a ballistic insight to her troubled genius

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Under Travel Books, writer, critic and translator Sophie Hughes talks about her favourite radical literature from all over the world.

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:

All summer

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

讓一切腐朽

 

蘋果變黃

老黃狗貪睡

蠟燭燒到了世界的盡頭

花朵隨著四季輪迴

祖母的肉身化成土壤

老舊的屋舍和社區老樹在政客的舌尖消失

 

唯有不經意與你路過婚紗街的午后

仍然是一半斜陽,一半天真

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

命運一下子把我吹進荒廢花園

 

每一朵花都有各自的苦果

每一幅肖像都熱淚盈眶

飽受折磨的人,逐漸長成蒸好的熱饅頭

那種溫柔與勇敢

比方說,理髮師的手指

比方說,作他的妻子

比方說,在日子裡,失去一些詩

說真的,我去去就回來

每一個荒廢的日子,都值得記憶

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 

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