Interview with Prof. Hans Bjarne Thomsen about “CARA”

by Aygun Uzunlar, ProMosaik e.V. – A very nice interview about our poetry project CARA with Prof. Hans Bjarne Thomsen of the Section for East Asian Art at the University of Zurich who wrote the introduction to the collection of poetry CARA. I would like to thank Prof. Thomsen very much for his time.

Aygun Uzunlar: For
me personally CARA is a way of life of poetry at the interface between
existential philosophy and mystics. How do you see this?
Hans Bjarne Thomsen: I agree, in CARA we see points in common
with both mysticism and existential philosophy. 
As we can see in the works of philosophers like Kierkegaard or Sartre,
such concepts are difficult to explain in logical and concise words, and
perhaps this is one of the roles of successful poetry: to make clear that which
is hard to express, in lyrical and moving words.  Too often in philosophical texts, we have a
closing of doors: a reduction of possibilities to a path along a long, narrow
corridor.   The poetry in CARA does the
exact opposite:  it opens doors and
liberates the reader into a rich variety of new possibilities. 

important is intercultural and interreligious vision of poetry?
HBT: Not necessarily important.  Great poetry can also be made within
religious traditions and such expressions can be seen, for example, within the
Bible, the Torah, and the Qur’an.  Such
poetry tends to be focused closely on small communities within religious systems.   Yet, they are undeniably powerful poetic
The attraction of the poetry in CARA is
through its almost total lack of connections and contexts.   It floats, in a sense, between cultures and
beliefs and forces us to make an effort to understand something that is
essentially fragmentary in nature.  In
effect, it expresses the beauty of ambiguity.  
And this ambiguity is important for the intercultural and interreligious
vision of this poetry, as well as for the accompanying paintings.  
can we promote peace by poetry?
HBT: Poetry can certainly promote peace.  But we should not forget that poetry remains
a tool in the hands of the poet, and that the intention of the poet remains
important.  If the intention of the poet
is to inflame the passions of the readers to the violence of war, then this can
be done: there are plenty of examples of this type of poetry.  Just as there are many examples of art that
can bring us to hate, to erotic passion, or to inner contemplation: in all
forms of art, intentions become important. 
Poetry, art, and rhetoric: these are all tools in the hands of their
creator and can become as destructive or constructive as willed by the person
who brings them to life. 
How then can we promote peace?  By judicious selections.  By selecting the art or poetry that brings out
the better qualities in the readers.  Not
a censorship of expression, but a promotion of that which we judge to be for
the better common good.  The publication
of CARA is an excellent example: the poetry of the anonymous poet, the
paintings of LaBGC, the work of the editors and publishers ProMosaik – all
these people have come together to make a publication that asks us to
contemplate on vital questions, for example, on our existence, on how to live
with others, and how to communicate, with or without words.  Surely these are goals that should be
promoted and those that can lead to peace within ourselves and with others
around us.

AU: How
important are universal and specific cultural values at the same time to
promote diversity and common values at the same time?
HBT: This is of course a very topical
question!  We see this right now around
us every day, for example, in the question of integration within Europe.  Are there universal values that can be
accepted by every culture?  Are there
specific cultural values of some groups that make them incompatible when placed
together with other groups?   How
important is diversity when it can lead to the tearing apart of common social
fabric?   How valuable are common values
when they are the result of sacrifice and suppression of the specific cultural
traditions of some groups?  
In such questions I believe that it is
important to have a sight of ideals, but – at the same time – to be aware of
the limitations of fellow human beings.  It
is clear when we look around in the world that we are not one big happy
family.  Conflicts seem to happen
spontaneously across the globe; no area of the world is exempt from this sad
fact.   We cannot expect spontaneous
expressions of happiness and peace when we place different cultures next to
each other – especially since cultural values are often based on
differences.  That is, a culture
identifies itself though the differences between it and the other cultures and
peoples around itself; differences from the cultural norms of one’s own group
are seen as threatening and as diametrically opposed to the preservation of
one’s own cultural values.
At the same time, we are now forced to find
common values, and an idealized view of mankind might not be the worst place to
start.  By allowing diversity and encouraging
constructive cultural values we may well lead to common understandings.   Integration is not a natural tendency, as natural
forces tend to pull us apart.  Therefore
process has to be active: we have to continually work against human nature and
reflexive tendencies in order to create a world where both universal and
specific cultural values are appreciated, and where both diversity and common
values are promoted at the same time.      

AU: What
can we learn from the Zen poetry?
HBT: Zen poetry is based on the idea of the kōan. 
These are the ritualized questions given by abbots to monks during training,
and form an important part of Zen Buddhist belief.  The questions might appear to be nonsensical
(Such as the Zen Master Hakuin’s famous k
ōan: “what is the sound of one hand clapping?”), but the Zen Buddhists
believed that religious awakening could result from the intense study of such
riddles.  In effect, the monk is shocked
into awakening. 
The great Zen poets have all undergone this
training, and traces of k
ōan riddles
appear consequently within the subtext of their poetry.  There is a great emphasis on exact wording,
on unexpected twists and turns, and on logic turned on its head.   The appeal to modern audiences is
undeniable, as it is a poetic form that gains its power from humor, from
surprise, from tearing up traditions, and on providing fresh views into common
existence.  There is indeed much we can
learn from Zen poetry.

AU: Which
are the most important aspects we can learn from traditional Japanese
HBT: Japanese calligraphy is a challenging field
to understand.  This does not mean that
it is inaccessible – there are indeed aspects that are more easily understood
than others – but it does mean that there are parts of calligraphy that can
only be understood through intense study and through a reading ability of the
We might start with the word “calligraphy”
– from the Latin it means “beautiful writing.” Yet there is nothing inherently
beautiful about Japanese calligraphy. It can be brutal and forceful or elegant
and lyrical: it can charm you with its rhythms or it can slap you in your face:
the emphasis of Japanese calligraphy is on inner strength and not on
A Western appreciation of Japanese
calligraphy will include aspects such as the overall expression, the balance of
the lines, the force of the individual strokes, and the modality of the
ink.  These are important aspects of the
calligraphy and ones that can be appreciated without a reading knowledge of the
A Japanese appreciation of calligraphy is
fundamentally different.  It will include
the reading of the text: of starting on the first character and then proceeding
through the text.  There is a journey
over time from the beginning to the end, touching on all the points in
The individual characters also have
meanings and the way that the calligrapher expresses these meanings is
significant.  He or she could express a
certain character in any number of variations, but a choice is made and the way
that this choice relates to the choices made on characters before or after is
also significant.  The understanding of
the audience is based on the reading of words and in the appreciation of how
individual choices were made in depicting these words. 
Thus there are significant differences in
the way that calligraphy is appreciated in the East and the West.  This is not to say that one is correct and
the other is not.  Art is in the eyes of
the beholder and the way that calligraphy is appreciated in the West is as
“correct” as it is in Japan.  The
importance in this art – as in any other art form – is in the serious
engagement of the viewer and the will to understand.  There is much we can learn from traditional
Japanese calligraphy if we are willing to bend our minds.