Category Archives: Blog

Szirtes defends Poetry

George Szirtes defends poetry: Poetry conjures the presence of things, their physicality… it is experienced through the body as much as the mind. “…but the chief use of poetry to sense the presence of the toad in language, without which sense nothing happens, without which the language enterprise is all imaginary gardens in which only ghosts can live.” Read it by clicking here: George Szirtes blog Then, go find that toad, say, by reading one of his poems: “Say

Arshile Gorky, great painter (and Armenian refugee)

In this touring exhibition, Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective, the Tate (10 February – 3 May 2010) celebrates the extraordinary work of Arshile Gorky and traces the development of his unique creative achievement. It firmly positions him amongst the greatest 20th-century American painters. Room after room, his astounding development is shown through his paintings. The interested viewer is given ample guidance through the exhibition catalogue’s well-written essays, to explore and see for herself the painter’s progress, as well as link it imaginatively to his life as a survivor of the Armenian genocide.

From his repainting of a 1912 photograph of himself and his mother, to the obsessional scraping of layers of paint in his canvasses, the viewer is provided with material to reflect upon not only the work of a genius, but also on the effects of trauma and the possible survival mechanisms at work. Best of all, Gorky’s paintings of himself with his mother serve as a pointer, a witness to the horrifying experiences and provide a background to that history and relationship.

For this blog – which focuses on cultural and historical factors impacting on themes of identity expressed in the visual arts, literature and society – the relevance of Gorky being an Armenian refugee from the Ottoman Empire, his life experiences and their influence on his subsequent development and work is self-evident. Born Vosdanig Manoog Adoian, in the surroundings of lake Van in the Armenian part of the Empire, he was said to be first traumatised by the emigration of his father to America; then by the persecution and expulsion suffered by the Armenians at the hands of the Ottoman empire rebuilding its identity as the Turkish nation. Gorky, together with his family, was forced on an eight day ‘death march’ during which many perished, suffered extremes of danger and famine and indeed lost his mother to starvation. He travelled via Constantinople (now Istanbul) and Athens some time in 1920 on his way to America.

Upon arrival, he took a new name: Arshile, as his first name, possibly from the Russian version of the Greek hero Achilles; and Gorky, from the great Russian writer, whose nephew he claimed to be. The question why Gorky changed his name, is one of the most discussed in the first newspaper reviews of the Tate exhibition, and has been prominent in the writings about him.

In The Times, Rachel Campbell-Johnston mentions the version of Gorky’s nephew, Karlen Mooradian (the same one who forged the letters from Gorky to his sister). He believed that Gorky was so overwhelmed by the weight of Armenian culture, history and language (passed on to him by his mother) that he felt he would never be able to live up to it. Changing his name, Mooradian is purported to have suggested, meant that Gorky could rid himself of this heavy burden.

Rachel Campbell-Johnston herself does not sound convinced that this is the main reason. Emphasizing the traumatic aspect of the wiping out of a whole community and subsequently this genocide being denied, she wonders whether the excessive trauma of this experience may have led Gorky to deny his true identity.

Whatever the reason – and several alternatives have been suggested and explored in the exhibition catalogue – there have been several charges levelled at Gorky and his art that are implicitly linked to his name change: imposture, mimicry, derivative, copying. William Feaver’s recent contribution in The Guardian is replete with references to boasting, or “an art of deception and concealment.” However, Michael R. Taylor in his article “Rethinking Arshile Gorky” (see exhibition catalogue) points out that what the critics saw as efforts by Gorky to copy the masters (Cézanne, Picasso and others) were misconstrued. These charges “fail[…] to grasp the radical nature of his self-imposed discipleship to these artists … Rather, Gorky emerges in this exhibition … as a quintessential self-taught artist in the interwar years whose steadfast allegiance to other artists’ visions was a means of self-creation” (p. 27).

Perhaps this is the point to remind ourselves how common it has become to write or paint under ‘pen names,’ ‘nom de guerre,’ or ‘nom de plume’. Would that mean that in relation to Gorky, different standards have been applied regarding his changing his name and not speaking about his own origins and trauma? If so, it would be interesting to consider why this might be the case.

However, there is a different point to consider. Without wishing to belittle the impact of the Armenian genocide or other explanations of Gorky assuming a new name, it may be useful to refer to the substantial amount of thinking and research carried out on the effects of colonial, imperial and post-colonial subjects. This work describes a clear pattern in the behaviour of those who aim to start a new life in another country, whether as refugees from war, persecution, hardship or for other reasons. In modern English literature, for instance, Indian and Pakistani authors, fleeing the aftermath of the Indian and Pakistan declarations of independence, have described the experience of such upheavals. Writing in English, these authors provide a culturally rich and imaginative perspective on displacement, exile, losses suffered and ways of coping/surviving them. They also explore, through their characters, a number of survival mechanisms being adopted in the new countries. Change of name, or slightly shortened/modified/Anglicized versions, as a sort of baptism, are among them.

Gorky’s change of name, his refusal to speak about the family trauma, may well be seen as expression of survival mechanisms which served him well in his work and life. The fact that he faced apocalyptic losses in his forties – lost paintings and books due to a fire in his studio; rectal cancer; wife’s affair with friend and supporter; subsequent abandonment by his wife, who took their children with her; breaking his neck in a car accident – meant that he was faced once again with a repetition of the original trauma he had suffered. Losing the life he had struggled so hard to build in America, Gorky may have lost the survival structures and the life energy that had propelled him forward to his becoming a new man, and a great artist.


Video on the Tate Channel about Arshile Gorky by fellow Armenian Nouritza Matossian, writer of Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky. Her family, like Gorky’s, survived the Armenian genocide.

Michael R. Taylor (ed) Arshile Gorky: A Retrospective (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2009)

Nouritza Matossian, Black Angel: The Life of Arshile Gorky (London: Chatto and Windus, 1998)

Black Angel – A Life of Arshile Gorky, video

Interesting video on the Tate Channel about Arshile Gorky by fellow Armenian Nouritza Matossian, writer of Black Angel: A Life of Arshile Gorky. Her family, like Gorky’s, survived the Armenian genocide.

Please feel free to add your comments, impressions, views about the film in the comments box below.

For more Reading Room Blog entries click here

How do languages die out? And why?

How do languages die out?The last member of a tribe that survived for over 65,000 years has died, taking a unique language with her. Bo had been one of the indigenous languages spoken in the Andaman Islands when the British colonised the islands. Initially the islands were used as penal colonies to accommodate survivors of the Indian War of Independence. The tribes were moved, forced to occupy a different, smaller island and subjected to so-called ‘civilising’ policies. Several were forced to live in the ‘Andaman Home.’ Interestingly, though not surprisingly, out of 150 Bo babies born in the Home, none survived beyond the age of 2. Food for thought. Read the article:

Or this one in The Guardian:

Which diseases do languages die of? Colonisation, present and past, ‘civilising,’ paternalistic policies may be the most virulent and aggressive ones. How many people speak the indigenous languages of the American natives? How many languages are threatened by blind prejudice?

How many great poems, stories were lost when the Bo language became extinct ? How much knowledge about history, ancient perspectives, animals, plants was lost, we will never know. In our arrogance, we are comfortable in the belief that our knowledge is the best, that we know better – and thus lose our connection with our roots, history and common humanity.

From another perspective, globalisation, time, culture, technologies are great equalisers, disseminators of information to the great Social Darwinian battlefield of humanity. The stronger language, community, culture wins. In an article in The New York Times, this process is seen at work in China:

On the other hand, many languages have also been saved. The Hebrew language was actively revived as a spoken, everyday language in the late nineteenth century, when Classical Hebrew and its later developments, together with other spoken Hebrew became the Modern Hebrew used today. Latin was saved from extinction through its use in the Holy See (but not the Vatican City State), apart from being preserved in classical education. Barely recognisable variations of Ancient Greek might (!) still be spoken by small pockets of descendents of Alexander the Great’s army in remote parts of Asia; Doric Greek is often uncovered in dialects spoken in the Peloponnese and other Western areas of present-day Greece. Welsh (in the United Kingdom), Maori (in New Zealand), and other languages came back from the brink.

Though the work of digital archives is commendable in preserving dying and/or dead languages in digital museums, such as “Open Language Archives Community” (OLAC) – it is, sadly, helpless in keeping them alive out there in the world.

Luckily, there are are other means of helping: and

Carry a Poem

Responding to the “Carry a Poem”, Edinburgh’s city of literature reading campaign 

question: “How do you carry yours?” I sent in the piece below. I also enjoyed reading
other people’s poem stories. Have a look, you might find something to your heart’s

Blue NightSTELLA’S STORY: BLUE NIGHT Thursday, 28 January 2010
I have different poems to suit different occasions. Poems,
fragments, even lines of poems I keep in my books, notice-board, notebook, iPod,
in my heart and head. And I keep renewing them, thanks to the wonderful output of our poets.
Last Christmas, I loved Carol Ann Duffy’s poem ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’;
last year, for rainy days, I carried Don Paterson’s ‘Rain’; the last few years,
Mary Oliver’s ‘Wild Geese’, hearing their ‘harsh and exciting’ cries as a wake
up call to the world. For decades, I pondered over Giorgos Seferis’ ‘In the Manner of G.S.’. So many others… Whenever I need reminding of my place in nature, in the order of things, whenever my expectations become too great, I reach for Sean O’Brien’s
‘Blue Night’. Downloaded from the Guardian, it lights up my computer screen. Therefore. Therefore, I become small, or tall. I draw strength and inspiration. Thank you Sean O’Brien.
from Blue Night by Sean O’Brien Therefore. Therefore. Do not be weak. They have no time for pity or belief,

Who are the real Greeks? in The Guardian

Reading Room Blog

Reading Room Blog

To suggest something for my Reading Room Blog, please email me and I will try my best to follow it up. Otherwise, pick an entry, sit back, and read!

Matina Stevis, in The Guardian, asks: Who are the real Greeks? Sparking a thought provoking debate, she discusses the proposed legislation offering citizenship to the children of immigrants:

I copy below my comment on Matina’s article from the Guardian website:

20 Jan 2010, 9:14PM

Greece is not an island. Unlike the UK, it is a country at the crossroads of the East with the West, at the intersection of three continents. It has a long history of wars of occupation and independence; of expansion, contraction, populations mixing, fleeing, persecution and exchange. In such an environment, the question ‘Who are the real Greeks?’ becomes either irrelevant or plays into the hands of those who try to manipulate history and race.

History helps us understand, though by no means justify or excuse, the state of a country and its people. Today, history is alive in Greece, and knowledge of the country’s past – the four hundred year Ottoman occupation, the Balkan wars, two World Wars, the war with Turkey and the resulting ‘Catastrophe’ of 1922, the treaty of Lausanne, the Civil War, the Junta –  helps us trace the roots of the divisions in modern Greek society. Unfortunately, large chunks of this history are kept in different places because they are being disputed, not accepted as true by the still warring parties in this country, as well as Greece’s neighbours. A quick read through the responses to this blog will illustrate the diversity of histories, ethnic woes and, really, the whole problem.

The Greek fault line may nowadays be seen in the reactions of some Greeks to foreign workers; in a feature shown on Greek TV some time ago, one could see footage of Greek migrants to America in the early twentieth century and the negative reactions to them by Americans that paralleled Greeks’ reactions to Albanian immigrants. The schism is also expressed in Greece’s policies towards some neighbouring countries  and now in the opposition of Greeks, thankfully not a majority, to the legislative proposal to allow citizenship to children born to immigrants.

Let us hope that those interested in Greece will feel encouraged by Matina’s article to trace the threads of this regrettable reaction to Greece’s history and the countless conflicts and migrations that made it a country and constructed its identity, and its fears of losing its recognizable format. At the same time, let us applaud the Greeks who, by proposing and supporting this progressive law, demonstrate their affinity with ideas of shared humanity and acceptance of the other.

Reading Room

Renee Hirschon, Heirs of the Greek Catastrophe: The Social Life of Asia Minor Refugees in Piraeus (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989)

Hirschon draws on her research as an anthropologist in one of the refugee areas of Piraeus, Kokkinia, in 1972. Living within the refugee community, Hirschon was able to observe people’s customs and traditions, listen to their stories, and witness their lives. The fact that they referred to themselves as refugees and they were addressed as such in 1972, fifty years from the 1922 catastrophic events in Asia Minor, becomes the pivot of the book, and underpins the facts she discusses.

Hirschon was able to follow the grievances, alienation, marginalisation and suffering of this group of people living in Piraeus, and their attempts to cope with their situation by forging a separate identity within the Greek nation. While later years brought prosperity and the possibility to move out of the area, large numbers decided to stay in overcrowded properties for economic, socio-political, and to some degree, psychological reasons. Hirschon’s work focuses on a moment in time in the lives of this group of Mikrasiates, which tells a story of their continuing need for an identity and a way of coming to terms with their situation.

From the iconostasi (icon corner/alcove) to the proxenio (the procedure of arranging the marriage), to the dowry, to the seeming contradiction of religious practice with left-wing commitment, and to the surprising ratio of chairs per head, the book presents and explores a society both alive and struggling to maintain its identity. Hirschon relates a woman refugee saying that while the catastrophic events in Asia Minor and their consequences were traumatic experiences to the older generation, they are heard only as fairy tales by their offspring.

This book paints an alive picture of the people and the society it describes.


Leyla Neyzi, ‘Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma’ in History and Memory, Bloomington: 2008, 20:2

Gülfem Kaatcilar Iren, a woman from Smyrna/Izmir, born in 1915, talks to Leyla Neyzi about her experiences of war, and the destruction of Smyrna and Manisa in  particular, events central to the history of Greece and Turkey. These events are referred to in Greece as the Smyrna ‘disaster’, while in Turkey as the ‘liberation’ of Izmir. This paper provides a unique account of the co-existence of two contradictory discourses framing the identity of the witness interviewed, as well as a wonderful illustration of shared humanity between people on the opposite sides of the political divide of the Aegean.

In a sensitive manner and with an ability to hold conflicting approaches in balance, Neyzi identifies two separate discourses in this narrative: a nationalist discourse which rationalises the events in Izmir and the ‘silence’ that followed them, and a discourse based on personal experience, which empathizes with those who lost the war and were forced to emigrate to another country (in this case, Greece) for safety.

Neyzi explores the coexistence and intersection between the two discourses while placing them within the wider socio-political context of the discussion about identity and history in modern-day Turkey.

Sources and related material to Alexandrias 40 and my Greek Short Stories:


Alice James, 2001, ‘Memories of Anatolia: generating Greek refugee identity’, in

Thalia Pandiri, 2007, ‘Narratives of Loss and Survival: Greek voices from the Asia Minor Catastrophe’, in

Raymond Bonner, 1996, ‘Tales of Stolen Babies and Lost Identities; A Greek Scandal Echoes in New York’ in


Bruce Clark, Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey (London: Granta Books, 2007)

Dimitra Giannuli, ‘“Strangers at Home” The Experiences of Ottoman Greek Refugees during their Exodus to Greece, 1922-1923,’ in Journal of Modern Greek Studies, 13:2 (1995: Oct.)

Marjorie Housepian Dobkin, Smyrna 1922: The Destruction of a City (New York: Newmark Press, 1988)

Esther P Lovejoy, Certain Samaritans (New York: Macmillan, 1933)

Leyla Neyzi, ‘Remembering Smyrna/Izmir: Shared History, Shared Trauma’ in History and Memory, Bloomington: 2008, 20:2

Arnold J Toynbee The Western Question in Greece and Turkey: A Study in the contact of civilizations (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1922)


Louis de Bernieres, Birds without Wings (New York: Random House, 2004)

Jeffrey Eugenides, Middlesex (London: Bloomsbury, 2002)

Ernest Hemingway, ‘On the Quai at Smyrna’, in The Short Stories (New York: Scribner, 2003)

Nikos Kazantzakis, Christ Re-crucified,

Dido Sotiriou, Farewell Anatolia


Theo Angelopoulos The Weeping Meadow

Costas Ferris, Rembetiko

Elia Kazan, America America

Poems by George Seferis

I am reading “In the Manner of G. S.” and “Thrush” both poems by George Seferis, in George Seferis: Collected Poems. Translated and edited by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard, Princeton University Press, 1995.

We shall see what comes of it. Very soon!