Author Tags: Kidlit & Young Adult, Poetry
"It is all a lottery." -- P.K. Page
P.K. (Patricia) Page was the tenth recipient of the George Woodcock (formerly Terasen) Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia in association with the City of Vancouver, the Vancouver Public Library and BC BookWorld. Although she regarded herself primarily as a poet, Page once noted she wrote more prose than poetry. She died at her Oak Bay home at age 93 on January 14, 2010.
Born at Swanage, Dorset in the south of England on November 23, 1916, P.K. Page came to Canada in 1919 when her parents Major General Lionel Frank Page and Rosa Laura Whitehouse settled in Red Deer, Alberta. "I am grateful to have grown up in an age when Grimm, Andersen, Perrault and the Arabian Nights were not considered too frightening for children," she recalled in The Filled Pen, a collection of her non-fiction. "These tales must have laid a basis for my continuing acceptance of worlds other than this immediately tangible one—worlds where anything is possible—where one can defy gravity, become invisible, pass through brick walls."
After completing high school at St Hilda's School for Girls in Calgary, she spent a year in Europe, and later worked in a store and on radio in Saint John, New Brunswick. She has lived in many other parts of Canada, including Montreal where in 1941 she became a member of the Preview Group with F.R. Scott and A.M. Klein, co-editing the literary periodical Preview. P.K. Page first lived on the West Coast from 1944 to 1946, participating in the development of Alan Crawley's Contemporary Verse. In Ottawa she worked as a screenwriter at the National Film Board where she met and married (in 1950) the new NFB chair W. Arthur Irwin who had previously been editor of Maclean's magazine, having first worked for that publication in 1925. In 1953 the couple moved to Australia for three years when Irwin was appointed Canadian High Commissioner. They moved to Brazil in 1956, and Mexico in 1960, due to Irwin's appointments as Canadian Ambassador. In Rio de Janeiro she began to study painting. In 1964, upon his retirement from External Affairs, Irwin accepted the job of publisher for the Victoria Daily Times, and the couple moved to Victoria where Page brought Alice Munro to the attention of publisher Jack McClelland in 1966.
While maintaining a parallel career as a painter for much of her life, Patricia Kathleen Page became one of the most esteemed and beloved writers of British Columbia, sharing ideas with Atom Egoyan, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, Rosemary Sullivan, Constance Rooke, Brian Brett, Susan Musgrave, Marilyn Bowering, Lorna Crozier, Patrick Lane, Alice Munro and many others. "She was very generous, I think, with [such] help--even with a young writer, like me, whose style and subject matter were quite different than her own," recalls Alice Munro. "But what was really important to me was just her existence, as a good Canadian writer, whom I read in the Forties and Fifties when Canadian writers were so rare." Page remained active as a mentor to writers such as Marilyn Bowering and Patricia Young, and helped to organize the Signal Hill Poetry Group in the 1980s, and a season of readings at Open Space, with poet Doug Beardsley. She was an early member of the League of Canadian Poets.
As a painter, she exhibited at countless galleries under her married name P.K. Irwin. She has works in the National Gallery, the AGO, the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, and private collections in Canada, Mexico and Europe. A symposium called `Extraordinary Presences: The Worlds of P.K. Page' was held at Trent University, Ontario in 2002. Her poem `Planet Earth' was chosen by the United Nations as the centrepiece for a year-long Dialogue Among Nations through Poetry; 2000. Other highlights of her career include a dramatized version of 'Unless the Eye Catch Fire', l994; 'A Children's Hymn', music by Harry Somers, for the 50th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations, l995; a two-part sound feature about her work, `The White Glass', for CBC Ideas; a special issue of The Malahat Review in l996; The Margaret Laurence Memorial Lecture, l999; 'A Somewhat Irregular Renga' with Philip Stratford, for the CBC, 1999; text (poems) for 'The Invisible Reality', an oratorio by Derek Holman, 2000; and 'A Children's Millennium Song', music by Oscar Peterson, for the opening of the Trans-Canada Trail. She is the subject of a film, 'Still Waters: The Poetry of P.K. Page', produced by the National Film Board of Canada.
When her father served with the Canadian forces in World War I, he sent back verses for his young daughter. Her mother illustrated them. Almost 50 years later, Page added a short memoir to the combined poems and drawings for 'Wisdom from Nonsense Land' (Beach Holme, 1992). Her husband William Arthur Irwin was born in Ontario on May 27, 1898. He died in Victoria at age 101. "For the past forty years, P.K. Page has been an enduring influence on younger British Columbia writers, poets and filmmakers," wrote her biographer Sandra Djwa. In May of 2004 P.K. Page became the inaugural recipient of the Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence. In 2006, to mark her ninetieth birthday, she donated monies to The Malahat Review for an annual prize to be named in her honour. Initially judged by Marilyn Bowering, the P. K. Page Founders’ Award for Poetry is a $1000 prize for the best poem or sequence of poems to have appeared in the magazine’s quarterly issues during the previous calendar year.
P.K. Page was increasingly drawn to writing for young readers in her old age. While pondering the source of the term blue-blood, she was inspired to write a conventional fairy tale in which a prince must prove himself worthy of the hand of a princess, The Sky Tree (Oolichan $19.95). It takes the form of a connected trilogy of fables. In the landlocked kingdom of Ure, three competing young men set off to complete the king’s challenge: bring him back a flask of sea water. The eventual winner, Galaad, who truly loves the princess, falls under the spell of a wizard and forgets his quest until he takes the wizard’s goats to an Eastern Sea, where the goats are transformed back into young men and women. Ultimately, King Galaad and his queen ascend to heaven, leaving their son Treece to rule Ure. Illustrated by Kristi Bridgeman, it’s a happy ending at the end of a long writing career.
DATE OF BIRTH: 23/11/16
PLACE OF BIRTH: England
ARRIVAL IN CANADA: 1919
ARRIVAL IN BRITISH COLUMBIA: 1965
EMPLOYMENT OTHER THAN WRITING: Painting
The Sun and the Moon, Macmillan Publishing,(novel), l944, pseud. Judith Cape;
As Ten as Twenty, (poetry), l946;
The Metal and the Flower, McClelland & Stewart (poetry), l954;
Cry Ararat!--Poems New and Selected, McClelland & Stewart, l967;
The Sun and the Moon and Other Fictions, Anansi, l973;
Poems Selected and New, Anansi, l974;
ed. To Say the Least, (anthology of short poems)Press Porcépic, l979;
Evening Dance of the Grey Flies, Oxford, (poems and a short story), l981;
The Glass Air, (poetry, essays and drawings), Oxford, l985;
Brazilian Journal, Lester & Orpen Dennys, prose - with drawings), l988;
A Flask of Sea Water, (fairy story), Oxford, 1989; The Glass Air - Poems Selected and New, Oxford, l99l;
The Travelling Musicians, Kids Can,(children's book) 1991;
The Goat that Flew (sequel to A Flask of Sea Water), Beach Holme, l994;
Hologram - A Book of Glosas (poems), Brick Books, l994;
The Hidden Room Vols. 1 and 2 - Collected Poems, Porcupine’s Quill, l997;
Compass Rose (poems in Italian translation) Longo Editore, l998;
Alphabetical - Hawthorne Society, l998;
And Once More Saw the Stars - Four Poems for Two Voices, (letters and poems) with Philip Stratford, BuschekBooks, 2001;
A Kind of Fiction - (short stories), Porcupine’s Quill, 2001;
Poem Canzonic with Love to AMK (broadside), www.mothertonguepress.com, 2001
Alphabetical, Cosmologies, (poems), de luxe editions, Poppy Press, 2001;
Planet Earth, Poems New and Selected, Porcupine's Quill, 2002;
A Grain of Sand, Fizthenry & Whiteside, 2003;
Cosmologies: Poems Selected and New (David R. Godine, 2003).
A Brazilian Alphabet for the Younger Reader (The Porcupine's Quill, 2005).
Hand Luggage: A Memoir in Verse (The Porcupine's Quill, 2006).
The Filled Pen: Selected Non-Fiction of P.K. Page (UTP, 2006). Edited by Zailig Pollock. $21.95. 0-8020-9399-X
Jake the Baker Makes a Cake (Oolichan 2008). Illustrated by Ruth Campbell.
The Essential P.K. Page (Porcupine's Quill 2008). Selected by Arlene Lampert and Thea Gray.
There Once Was A Camel (Cherubim / Ekstasis 2008). Illustrated by Kristi Bridgeman
Coal and Roses: Twenty-One Glosas (Porcupine's Quill, 2009).
The Old Woman and the Hen (Porcupine's Quill 2009). Wood engravings by Jim Westergard. $10.95 978-0-88984-309-7
The Sky Tree: A Trilogy of Fables (Oolichan 2010). Illustrated by Kristi Bridgeman. 978-088982-258-0
ABOUT P.K. PAGE
Djwa, Sandra. Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page (McGill-Queen's 2012) 9780773540613 $39.95
The Bertram Warr Award for a group of poems awarded by Contemporary Verse, l940;
Oscar Blumenthal Award for a group of poems awarded by Poetry (Chicago), l944;
The Governor General’s Award in Poetry for The Metal and the Flower, l954;
National Magazines Award (Gold), l985;
Canadian Authors’ Association Literary Award for Poetry, l985-86;
Brazilian Journal, winner Hubert Evans Non-Fiction Prize, 1988; also shortlisted for the Governor-General’s Award
Banff Centre School of Fine Arts National Award, 1989;
National Magazine Award (Silver) l989; Readers’ Choice Award, Prairie Schooner, 1994;
bpNichol Chapbook Award, 1999; (for Alphabetical)
short-listed for the Griffin Prize, 2003; (for Planet Earth)
Officer of the Order of Canada, l977;
Doctor of Letters, (Honoris Causa), University of Victoria, l985;
Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa), University of Calgary, l989;
Doctor of Letters, (Honoris Causa), University of Guelph, l990;
Doctor of Laws (Honoris Causa), Simon Fraser University, l990;
Doctor of Letters, (Honoris Causa) University of Toronto, l998;
Companion of the Order of Canada, l999;
Doctor of Letters, (Honoris Causa) University of Winnipeg. Tribute at the Vancouver Writers' Festival, 2000;
Distinguished Writer, Banff, 2002;
Ambassador for the Arts, awarded by the Metchosin International Summer School of the Arts, 2002;
Tribute at the Sechelt Festival of the Arts, 2002;
Order of BC, 2003.
Lieutenant Governor's Award for Literary Excellence, 2004
George Woodcock (formerly Terasen) Lifetime Achievement Award for an Outstanding Literary Career in British Columbia, 2004
[Porcupine's Quill photo]
[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2012] "Poetry" "Kidlit"
P.K. Page Terasen Acceptance Speech Highlights,
Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award,
Vancouver Public Library, 2004:
When I heard that I’d won the award, I thought, well, this good news… and this is bad news. It’s very good news that my peers thought me worthy of this award. But it’s telling me how old I am!
With me added to the list of winners, that makes three poets out of ten. And I’m happy to draw your attention to it.
I’m going to be serious now. Poetry is a vitally important literary form. It’s too often overlooked in this age of fast food, fast ideas, fast acts, fast living. And who has time for it? Nobody. Or few. And yet if my fast facts are correct, there are respectable psychologists who claim that, in order to develop the full powers of the mind—now listen to this, this is important—early exposure to metered verse is essential. Some go even further, suggesting the reading of poetry develops pattern recognition, a sophisticated sense of time and timing, and more importantly, such positive emotions as peace and love. Now if they are correct, you need me. And you need all the other poets who are here… including Patrick [Friesen], who has just crept in. If they are correct, I have not spent a lifetime goofing off… although it may look like it. Being a poet requires the acquisition of a considerable armoury. No no, not weapons of mass destruction—subversive though poets are apt to be. Definition ‘B’ in Webster. Armoury: A collection of available resources. A treasury. Homer and all the poets since who have told us about ourselves, told us, what’s more, in curious rhythms that may have been shaping our brains. I mean this is really serious stuff! Who knows what Shakespeare did to us, with his iambic pentameter. Let me end by paraphrasing an article by Frederick Turner—he’s a poet, he’s a polymath—and Ernest Popul, a German brain researcher. They deplore the rise of what they call ‘Utilitarian Education’, and the loss of traditional folk poetry, and claim this trend may have led to the success of political and economic tyranny. They conclude that, starved of the beautiful and complex rhythms of poetry, we become susceptible to the brutal and simplistic rhythms of the totalitarian slogan—or advertising jingle. I told you I was going to be serious, and I’m being serious. But we live in serious times, and I think it’s perfectly legitimate to take this tact. We need all the help we can get. I’m especially delighted, for all these reasons, that poetry has been honoured, in this tenth year of the Terasen [Award]. And every time I light my gas fire, I will think of this evening, and all of you, and thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Jake, The Baker
P.K. Page has crafted an enticing children’s tale about a baker who learns that money can’t buy happiness, Jake, The Baker, Makes A Cake (Oolichan 2008 $19.95). As he tries to marry the beautiful daughter of his cranky boss, Jake consents to literally sell his own happiness to Mr. Jeremiah, only to become miserable in the process. Illustrated by Ruth Campbell, this tales has plenty of plot twists, culminating in a very special wedding cake. 978-088982-245-0
The Sky Tree
Of the origins of The Sky Tree, P.K. Page wrote:
All my life I have loved fairy tales. When young, I was lucky enough to have parents who read them to me—parents who loved them too. Now that I am older, I approach them less literally and respond to them more deeply. They are tales of hope. They show me unexpected things about myself and the world. They are rich in reminders of perseverance and kindliness. And, even more important, they persuade me that another, invisible world can manifest itself within our three-dimensional, daily one.
In the light of all this, it is not surprising that I should want to write a fairy story myself—a traditional fairy story. But I was never able to do so. And then, one night, the phrase “blue blood” came into my head. Webster defines it—and I quote—as “membership in a noble or socially prominent family”. The Shorter Oxford—to quote again—says, “tr. Sp. sangre azul claimed by certain families of Castile as being uncontaminated [sic] by Moorish, Jewish or other admixture; probably founded on the blueness of the veins of people of fair complexion.”
“Blue blood”—sea-blue blood—so my idle thoughts ran. But, of course! Why hadn’t I seen it before? “Blue blood” had nothing to do with class or race. It was a term applied to the wise, to those who, symbolically, had been to the sea—that mythical source of all life, the “great mother”, which, in most cultures, represents wisdom, wholeness, truth—and as a result, in whose veins flowed, symbolically again, blood that was [sea] blue.
And as far as Royalty being “blue-blooded”—[royal blue, note!]—perhaps, in some Golden Age, “blue blood” had nothing to do with lineage and everything to do with wisdom; and that seeking his successor, the old King in the fairy tales was trying to find a young man as wise or, in my terminology, as “blue-blooded” as he. I can’t think of a single tale in which the Kingdom automatically goes to the rightful heir.
But I am no scholar. I am no etymologist either, and I am not trying to persuade you of the rightness of my notion. Perhaps there was no Golden Age when Kings were chosen for their wisdom—perhaps that happens only in fairy tales. But, interestingly, on checking four historically wise rulers, I found that three—Solomon, Alexander the Great, and Charlemagne—had no clear titles to the kingdoms they ruled, and that the fourth—Haroun el-Rashid, Charlemagne’s friend—had a curiously unconventional line of ascent.
So that is where my ruminations about “blue blood” led me; and how I came to write a traditional fairy tale in which a young man, in order to win the hand of the Princess, made the long journey to the sea. In so doing, he proved himself a wise and worthy successor to the old King.
An Appreciation of P.K. Page
from Writers Union of Canada
By Rosemary Sullivan
On January 17th, P.K. Page died at her home in Victoria, B.C., at the age of 93. She had phoned me the day before, and among the many things we talked about, including the future, she remarked: “I have had my life.” She said it with satisfaction and a graceful resignation. It’s hard to exaggerate the loss to Canadian poetry. Her calibre of poet comes along only rarely.
To write of P.K. Page is like trying to capture air with a net full of holes. She was a complete original. She was the last of that great generation of Canadian poets who laid the foundations for modern Canadian poetry, beginning with A.M. Kline and moving through to Al Purdy and P.K. Page.
P.K. published over 35 books. Her last two, Cullen and The Sky Tree, were released in November, on the eve of her 93rd birthday. She published the first part of Cullen 40 years ago, and continued to visit him over the years. The sequence ends with “Cullen in the Afterlife.” He is a kind of alter-ego, humorous, contrary, and profound. The poem is seamless, as if written in one go, though P.K. wrote the section “Cullen at Fifty” only last September. It captures the astonishingly breathless pace of a single life as it speeds by.
P.K. was born in Swanage, England. When she was two years old, the family moved to Canada. Her father had joined the First Canadian Expeditionary Force during World War I and was by then an officer. P.K. lived in multiple Canadian geographies. She spent her childhood in Calgary. In her autobiographical sequence Hand Luggage, she writes of the thrill of riding horseback over the prairies. As she approached her twenties, the family moved to Saint John, New Brunswick, where she attended business school and wrote the draft of her novel The Sun and the Moon. She moved alone to Montreal to turn herself into a writer, working as a file clerk, the tedium of which she caught in her famous poem “The Stenographers.” She was soon invited into the circle of Preview poets. In 1946, she moved to Ottawa to work as a scriptwriter for the NFB and there met and married her husband Arthur Irwin. They spent over a decade outside Canada before finally settling in Victoria, BC, where P.K. became a creative catalyst for those around her. I first met her there in 1974.
In those interim years P.K. had followed her husband in his diplomatic career, first as High Commissioner to Australia, Ambassador to Brazil and then to Mexico and Guatemala. But P.K. was no ordinary Ambassador’s wife. In Brazil, not speaking Portuguese and suddenly without words, she turned to painting. She had studied art under Charles Selinger in New York. She painted everything: the embassy residence, the furniture, the stairwells, her pet marmoset, the flora and fauna; the paintings dance with Brazilian reds, greens and golden yellows. She followed Brazilian literary life, meeting Jorge Amado and reading the works of Carlos Drummond de Andrade.
"If Brazil was day,” she wrote in retrospect, “then Mexico was night. All the images of darkness hovered for me in the Mexican sunlight. If Brazil was a change of place, Mexico was a change of time. One was very close to the old gods here.… The great temples rose all around me. Temples to the Sun. Temples to the Moon.”
In Mexico she turned the Ambassadorial residence on Montes Carpatos into a centre for artists. Rufino Tamayo and José Luis Cuevas visited, joining her lexicon of loved painters that included Paul Klee and David Milne. But the artist and writer Leonora Carrington had the deepest impact. One night Carrington showed up at the Embassy. “She was tall and lean and beautiful,” P.K. told me, “I always used to say she could slip through a crack in the door, as if she had one finger and one toe less than the rest of us, her physical self was so narrow.” Sitting on a couch in the embassy living room, Carrington looked terminally bored.
In her anxiety to engage her, P.K. found herself recounting a strange experience from her childhood. She and her mother had been looking out the living room window of their home when they suddenly found themselves staring into the eyes of a creature who was watching them from the adjacent house. “It looked,” she explained, “like current descriptions of aliens: round dark eyes like disks, pointed chin, narrow with languorous hair, soft like a baby’s, as if it were under water almost.” The creature was not threatening, but it frightened her. Her mother, who had clearly also seen it, quietly closed the blinds.
Leonora Carrington approached and said: “It sounds totally true; it has verisimilitude.” She immediately invited P.K. to her studio. Carrington, Page, and Carrington’s fellow exile, Remedios Varo, became friends and collaborators in art. P.K. recalled how she would drive them all around Mexico City, negotiating the gloriettas where the traffic merged from eight different directions, as they hunted for gold leaf and pigment. Carrington taught P.K. to make her own egg-tempera. They shared many things, but I like to think what bonded them most was their sense of humour and mischief. P.K. loved to kick up her heels with abandon.
I mention this childhood anecdote because it is vintage P.K.. Neither a cynic nor credulous, she believed, as one of her favourite poets D.H. Lawrence put it, that “we are a mystery to which the mind can gain little access.” This made her a searcher, open to hypotheses about being. She loved the antic profundity of what she called “informational dreams.” She often amused me by recounting her dreams. In one, she walked into a field at the centre of which was a gigantic egg. A voice said: “You can’t be beaten unless you’re broken. Unless you’re broken you can’t be whole.” She laughed: “It’s the cosmic omelette.” The insight of the dream, she said, was that we have to be raw, open to suffering, if we are to learn anything.
P.K. read widely—you went to her for a bibliography, whether it was Robert Ornstein’s The Psychology of Consciousness, or Rafi Zabor’s I, Wabenzi. With Doris Lessing, who was a friend, she shared a deep interest in Sufism, and could quote the humorous tales of the 13th century Mulla Nasrudin. I remember visiting once, only to find myself led off to a downtown studio where a group of people were sitting on the floor practicing Edward de Bono’s lateral thinking. When something new came along, she investigated.
She was a wonderful painter and was looking forward to a new project: an exhibition of her work at the McMichael Gallery planned for 2012. Zailig Pollock had already organized a P.K. Page evening at Trent University, where there is a room dedicated to P.K. and Arthur Irwin. After a performance of her poems set to music, the audience walked into a gallery full of her gold leaf suns and phantom moons.
But poetry was her passion. She touched something primordial when the poems found her. She had such astonishing verbal wit. “What is the difference,” she once asked, “between ‘there’ and ‘here’ except for a wayward and wandering ‘t’? A poem was essentially a ceremony of language that required rhythm and restraint. She loved the old forms: sestinas, glossas, rhymed pentameter, and could write within their formal boundaries with a fluidity that is wonderful to hear. Two of her later books, Hologram and Coal and Roses are glossas, complex plays on four lines drawn from the poets with whom she had been engaging in mental conversations over the decades. By special resolution of the United Nations in 2001, her glossa, “Planet Earth,” was read simultaneously in New York, the Antarctic, and Mount Everest to celebrate the International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations Through Poetry.
Over the last little while, P.K. suffered several brief bouts of amnesia. On at least two occasions, after attending an event at which people noted that she was animated and engaged, when she got home she did not remember having gone out. “What are we,” she remarked to me with her usual detached curiosity, “if the body can carry on when the being, the mind, is totally elsewhere?” The publisher Louise Dennys was going to put her in touch with Oliver Sacks, who was working on a book about writers and cerebral events. But P.K. left early—privately and gracefully, on her own terms. A while ago, I wrote to her telling her that I and her long-time friend, Arlene Lampert, were worried and wanted to visit. She wrote me back: “Thank you for the dreams and for your willingness to come at the drop of a tear, if I start breaking up—which I am doing, of course, but undramatically and slowly. Quite weird, the end of life. Never knowing if you are going to waken up dead. Unknown territory.”
A “Celebration of P.K. Page” is being planned by her family, to be held in March or early April at Hart House, The University of Toronto.
-- March 2010
Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page by Sandra Djwa (McGill-Queen’s $39.95)
from Joan Givner
Although P. K. Page regarded herself primarily as a poet, she was a painter who wrote more prose than poetry.
Born at Swanage, Dorset, in the south of England, on November 23, 1916, she came to Canada in 1919 when her parents, Major General Lionel Frank Page and Rosa Laura Whitehouse, settled in Red Deer, Alberta.
In Montreal in 1941 she became a member of the Preview Group with F.R. Scott and A.M. Klein, co-editing the literary periodical Preview. Page first lived on the West Coast from 1944 to 1946, participating in the development of Alan Crawley’s Contemporary Verse.
Here Joan Givner reviews Sandra Djwa’s new biography Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page in which Djwa traces Page’s quest for answers to the universal questions, “Who am I?” and “Where am I going?”
According to Givner, P.K. Page’s psychic journey of independence began when she chose a year in England over a university degree, educated herself through self-directed reading and, at a time when most women of her generation married, accepted an allowance from her father to find a place of her own in Montreal in which to write.
It was a mark of her commitment as an artist that P.K. Page, at the age of eighty, chose a biographer with a profound understanding of her work and the ability to weave that knowledge expertly into a compelling life story. Thereafter she cooperated with Sandra Djwa, granting interviews over a ten-year period.
In spite of the trust between them, the relationship was not without tensions as the biographer’s need to establish facts and dates conflicted with the subject’s belief in the non-linear nature of her experiences. Page saw all time and events as simultaneous—a precept of Sufism, but hardly one that a biographer could follow.
Djwa brought another great asset to her task because she was the previous biographer of F.R. Scott, the poet, law professor and legal activist, who was Page’s great love. Unable to cover the affair in the earlier biography, Djwa describes it here for the first time. Although Scott was married when the two met in Montreal, he fell deeply in love with Page, and she had every reason to hope that the relationship would become permanent. However, after eight years, he made the decision to remain in his marriage.
Page was devastated by the rejection. She was thirty-four at the time, a scriptwriter at the National Film Board, and when Arthur Irwin, the commissioner of the NFB, proposed marriage a few months later, she accepted. Two years after the marriage, Irwin was
Invited to join the diplomatic corps as high commissioner to Australia.
The years in Australia and his subsequent postings as ambassador to Brazil and Mexico broke the momentum of Page’s writing, and this period has been described, somewhat inaccurately, as her “decade of silence.” Even though she had won the Governor General’s Award for her poetry collection, The Metal and the Flower, she wrote little poetry and turned instead to drawing and painting. She also kept a diary, a version of which, entitled Brazilian Journal, was published three decades later. When asked about the ten-year hiatus, Page has explained that she could find no vocabulary for a Baroque world, and that not being immersed in the English language made it difficult to write poetry. She also found it hard to thrive outside a literary community.
If she hoped to find one after she returned to Canada, Page was disappointed. When Arthur Irwin accepted the job as publisher of the Victoria Daily Times, the couple settled in Victoria. The city did have a thriving literary and artistic community, but it was dominated by Robin Skelton who excluded Page from his Thursday night salons and from events at the University of Victoria, where he had established the department of Creative Writing.
Skelton emerges in an unfavourable light, his exclusionary tactics seen as a disparagement of Canadian literature. Yet the territorialism of any literary community rivals that of the animal kingdom, and there were many reasons for the animosity between the two. One may have been Skelton’s sensitivity to the British upper class persona that Page projected. (Although she immigrated at the age of three, she retained what her husband called “her god-damned Brit voice.”). After a long absence from Canada, “cosseted” in diplomatic circles, she had developed the intimidating presence of a grande dame. Relations deteriorated further when Arthur Irwin fired Skelton from his position as art critic for the Victoria Daily Times. The final row happened after Page learned of Skelton’s part in the University of Victoria’s decision to turn down the papers of Alan Crawley, founder of the poetry magazine, Contemporary Verse. As reported by Page, “I said, I don’t know what, ‘Go and boil your head,’ or “Go back to England...’ The whole party stopped and Skelton and I had a rip-snorting row, publicly.”
She was isolated and profoundly unhappy but eventually found support beyond Victoria. She joined the League of Canadian Poets, gained an admirer in George Woodcock who edited Canadian Literature; published Cry Ararat, a new collection of poetry, and enjoyed public readings of her work. At this time too, her interest in the mystical system of Sufism sharpened. She visited the enclave of Idries Shah in England, and joined a group studying Sufism in Victoria.
Perhaps the most extraordinary feature of Page’s life is the longevity of her creative energy. During the last years, she continued to produce such original work as Hologram (1994) a collection of glosas (a form invented by fourteenth century Spanish poets), as well as fiction, new poetry collections, and
Hand Luggage, a book length autobiography in verse.
And the honours poured in. She was given honorary degrees, symposiums devoted to her work, art shows, and many prizes. She took the designation of “National Treasure,” in the Ottawa Citizen to be an affirmation of her life’s work. However, she became painfully aware of the insubstantial nature of such accolades, when she was short-listed for the prestigious Griffin prize. She was dismayed not only by losing to Margaret Avison, a one-time rival, but by hearing Avison declared a “National Treasure.”
That was not the only honour that developed a sour note. She was given the Terasen Lifetime Achievement Award before a large crowd at the Vancouver Public Library. But two years later a division of Terasen Gas (formerly BC Hydro and Gas) was sold to a Texas group. Feisty to the end, Page registered her objection to the sale of Canadian companies by renouncing the award and donating the prize money to charity. The gesture was typical of the uncompromising honesty and outspokenness that characterized her entire life.
P.K. Page died at her Oak Bay home at age 93 on January 14, 2010.
by Joan Givner, from Victoria.
SFU English academic wins GG
Press Release (2013)
Sandra Djwa, a Simon Fraser University professor emerita of English and celebrated author known for her compelling scholarly biographies of important Canadian literary figures, has won the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award for non-fiction.
Affectionately known among writers as the GGs, the 14 coveted awards in seven different categories come with a $25,000 cash prize.
Along with this year’s other GG award winners, Djwa will be formally recognized at an awards ceremony and dinner with the Governor General and guests at Ottawa’s Rideau Hall on Nov. 28.
Born in St. John’s, Newfoundland and now living in West Vancouver, Djwa has garnered one of Canada’s premier national literary awards for her latest book Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page.
Published in 2012 by McGill-Queen’s University Press, the book is the first biography of Patricia Kathleen Page. The British-born and Canadian-bred poet and fine artist died in 2010 in Victoria, B.C. at age 93. She inspired the literary growth of iconic Canadian authors Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro.
In Journey with No Maps, Djwa draws on her 30-year friendship with Page and more than a decade’s worth of research about her work to chart Page’s evolution into one of Canada’s most influential writers.
“P.K. gave her first public reading to my poetry class at SFU in April 1970,” says Djwa, who taught at SFU from 1968 to 2005.
“I wrote her biography because she invited me to do so. She is a wonderful subject for biography as a person, as an influential writer and as an individual whose life as a poet, visual artist and diplomat’s wife cuts across many of the significant people and events in our century.”
Jon Smith, chair of SFU’s English department and an associate professor, echoes the pride and praise of many reviewers, including the GG jurors, of Djwa’s latest book.
“Both sympathetic and incisive, her biography of P.K. Page not only presents the life of a remarkably talented poet and artist, but also illuminates the many different creative contexts in which she found herself, from the progressive poetry circles of mid-twentieth century Montreal to her last decades in Victoria,” says Smith.
The GG jurors said this of Djwa’s biography of P.K. Page: “An insightful discussion of the power of her poetry, the book also illuminates Canada’s literary history in its formative years.”
In an article for the journal Literary Review of Canada, reviewer Molly Peacock wrote: “This beautifully documented biography proceeds through the full development of Page’s career, which is also the history of CanLit in a single example…”
A member of the Royal Society of Canada since 1994, Djwa chaired SFU’s English department from 1986 to 1994. She was the first recipient of the Trimark Women’s Mentor Award for mentoring younger colleagues in 1999.
The Royal Society awarded her the Lorne Pierce medal for Professing English (2002), her biography of Canadian poet and scholar Roy Daniells (1902-1979).