Journey with No Maps (McGill-Queen's University Press) is the first biography of poet P. K. Page. The product of over a decade's research and writing, the book follows Page as she becomes one of Canada's best-loved and most influential writers. "A borderline being," as she called herself, Page recognized the new choices offered to women by modern life but followed only those related to her quest for self-discovery.
The book is shortlisted for 2013 The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction, to be announced March 4, 2013. It's author, Sandra Djwa, talks to 49th Shelf about the process of charting a map of an intensely private, yet revered, personality. An excerpt follows the chat.
P. K. Page, considered one of Canada's most beloved poets, is the author of more than a dozen books, including poetry, a novel, short stories, essays and books for children. Awarded a Governor General’s Award for poetry (The Metal and the Flower) in 1954, the BC Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Literary excellence in 2004, and appointed a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1999, Page was also shortlisted twice for the prestigious Griffin Poetry Prize, in 2003 for Planet Earth, and posthumously for Coals and Roses in 2010. A two-volume edition of Page's collected poems, The Hidden Room (Porcupine's Quill), was published in 1997.
In addition to writing, Page was a prolific painter under the name P. K. Irwin, with shows in Mexico and Canada, where her work is represented in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Victoria Art Gallery, among others.
Page died in January 2010.
Julie Wilson: You were approached directly by P. K. Page write this biography. I'm curious to know, how does P. K. Page ask someone to relay her life's story?
Sandra Djwa: I think that choosing a biographer is a kind of dance between subject and biographer. I had seen P. K. read at the Vancouver International Writers Fest in the late '80s. There was deep emotion in her voice when she spoke about her father—she said they had not reconciled. This led me to wonder about her life and whether she would have a biography. P. K., in turn, had seen me writing F. R. Scott’s biography. P. K. and her husband, Arthur Irwin, had been very helpful when I asked them about topics relating to the 1940s and 1950s. [Editor's note: Page and Scott had an affair during that time.]
Then, in 1987, both P. K. and I were shortlisted for the BC Non-Fiction Prize. I arrived one evening for dinner at her home in Victoria and found Arthur reading my F. R. Scott biography, and liking it. A few years later, I wrote a paper about biography and P. K. asked me if she could read it. My impression at the time was that she did not want to have a biography. I think now that she was probably sussing me out for some time before she decided to take the plunge.
P. K. phoned one morning in December 1996 when I was making Christmas cookies. She asked, quite directly, would I like to write her biography? I said I would. We agreed to get together in Victoria in the New Year to discuss the matter. Later in February of 1997, and again in September of that year, she sent a formal letter authorizing me so write her biography and stating that I would be free to interpret her life as I saw fit.
JW: From "Traveler, Conjuror, Journeyman," 1970, by P. K. Page:
"I am traveler. I have a destination but no maps. Others perhaps have reached that destination already, still others are on their way. But none has had to go from here before—nor will again. One’s route is one’s own. One’s journey unique. What I will find at the end I can barely guess. What lies on the way is unknown."
Back to Page's invitation to interpret her life, while researching Journey with No Maps, you studied books, journals, papers, and letters, and of course interviewed Page, along with her husband. Page referred to herself as a "borderline being," self-discovery at the core of her voyage. If Page's journey is one with no maps, what was yours as the biographer, considering her "route," as it were, after the fact? Did these materials offer to you the distinct outline of a map? Were they landmarks?
SD: Yes and no. The materials that I gathered for the biography—and these would also include unpublished journals and poems—did give me a sense of a life with certain major stopping points. But I did not at first fully recognize the importance of the map as a metaphor for her life journey, nor did I recognize the landmarks and how often she moved from one place to another.
P. K. herself was not fond of dates, and was never sure when she was in any specific place. It was only when I gathered her correspondence (she tended not to date her early letters) and checked dates with English census reports and Canadian military records that I began to realize just how peripatetic her life really was. It was then that I saw the significance of the map, an impression confirmed when she began to speak of her early life and her father’s insistence that she learn to map herself on the prairie. Once I began to think about her life as a journey, the landmarks became clearer.
Finally, when I began to read the material relating to her time in Mexico I saw that she herself had used the metaphor of her own life as a journey with no maps.
JW: After Page's relationship with poet F.R. Scott ended (because he would not divorce his wife), Page married Irwin, becoming the wife of a high commissioner and ambassador. Yet with the obligations that come with such a public role, and the lingering rejection of her traumatic relationship with Scott, Page continued to pursue her artistic endeavors. It was during this time, for instance, that she became an accomplished painter. As a child, Page's mother collected her drawings into books. Was painting a return to something comforting and familial?
SD: P. K. Page was in the habit of turning to art when traumatic events occurred. Now that I have completed Journey with No Maps and am re-reading it, I see that as a girl she wrote one of her first real poems in response to her father’s serious heart attack. And in the clearest statement of her aesthetic, in "Arras" (a signature poem in my reading), she acknowledges that the creating of art in response to stress has become a habit.
She remained committed to her craft all her life and it was very distressing for her when she could not find the words to write poetry when she lived in Brazil. Her hypothesis was that the Portuguese language all around her was drowning out her English sentences. It was then that she began to draw and paint. Certainly she did have earlier experience of drawing as a child but the art that she begins to create in Brazil seems to be of a different order. My sense is that she was searching for a new artistic language of colour to describe Brazil.
JW: It's surprising, isn't it, that Page didn't fall into the cult of celebrity? Considered one of Canada's greatest poets, she nonetheless lived abroad for some of her adult life. She successfully pursued two artistic tracks. And while married to a statesman—a relationship in which she enjoyed a modern independence—she remained tied in the public eye to her failed relationship with Scott. However, since her death, Page's popularity continues to gain momentum. Why do you think that is?
SD: P. K. Page was a very private person. Given the mores that dominated Canadian society when I grew up, I suspect that the generations of the '70s, '80s, and early '90s would not have been aware of her relationship with F. R. Scott. A few poets would have known but not the general public. It is only since the mid-1980s that the personal lives of Canadian poets have come to the public eye, and then only selectively. Elspeth Cameron’s biography of Irving Layton was probably the first example of this. P. K. Page first brought her story to public attention in her obituary interview with Sandra Martin of the Globe and Mail. However, that was relatively recently, in January 2010.
But the question is a good one. P. K. Page was well known and respected during her lifetime. Michael Ondaatje once described her as a "poet’s poet." But why wasn’t P. K Page more celebrated than she was? I don’t really have an answer to that question. It could have been partly her gender. Margaret Atwood and a number of other woman poets have remarked that poetry in Canada was a man’s world when they began to write. It could have been the kind of poetry that she writes. Some of Page’s poems are not immediately accessible and the reader has to work with them.
Finally, there is the issue of topicality. The young Atwood was avidly read for what many readers saw as her modern feminism; the young Ondaatje in The Collected Works of Billy the Kid spoke to a generation attuned to violence. P. K. Page during the same period was writing a somewhat formal poetry and her concerns were less overt. What is most interesting now is that P. K. Page’s use of the glosa—a relatively complicated and formal kind of poetry—is being emulated by many younger poets. As Patricia Young remarks, "P.K. Page is the queen of glosas."
Learn more about P. K. Page on 49th Shelf.
Journey with No Maps: A Life of P. K. Page is a finalist for the 2013 The Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-fiction, to be announced March 4, 2013. See all the 2013 finalists on 49th Shelf's recommended reading list.
Sandra Djwa is a professor emeritus of English at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, B.C. and the prize-winning author of The Politics of the Imagination: A Life of F.R. Scott and Professing English: A Life of Roy Daniels. She lives in Vancouver.
Enjoy this excerpt from Journey with No Maps: A Life of P. K. Page (reprinted with permission from McGill-Queen's University Press.)
Pat left Montreal because she knew she had to get away for a time. In late May she took the train to Halifax, where her father was now commander- in-chief of Atlantic Command; he and Rose had rented a furnished flat at 48 Cambridge Street. When Pat eventually arrived in Halifax after a day and a night on the train, she was completely exhausted. She went to bed and stayed there for several days, sleeping, drinking hot milk, trying to forget the world she had left behind. In the last troubled months in Montreal she had tried to keep awake at night because whenever she slept she had terrible nightmares—and they haunted her days.
She wondered if a whole summer away from Montreal—and Frank—would be bearable. Sending letters through the mail, as they did, was risky. Scott’s letters at McGill were routinely opened by wartime censors, and Pat’s family were unaware of the depth of their relationship. She arranged with a friend for Scott to send his letters to her and asked that he include a photograph as she couldn’t remember what he looked like at the station. As she told him in a letter soon after her arrival in Halifax, "I felt so ill and used all my strength in refraining from flinging myself at you, with the result that I remember only a strong light and heat and our shaking hands . . . Altogether whichever way I look I know you’re the biggest thing that ever happened to me."
Although she went through the motions of visiting old friends and even made some new ones, at the end of June she wrote to him saying that there was "no road back to the old life:" "Do I cut you out of me with a scalpel & pretend you never existed? I begin to think love is a bad thing. It doesn’t make you strong. I seem to be going through some dreadful crisis that is worse than anything yet." Ten days later she wrote: "Somehow I must learn the dreadful lesson of independence. But once learned then what? Is it possible for any relationship to exist between two complete independent people?"
Her spirits took a lift in late June when she received a first draft of Scott’s poem "Windfall," telling her that he, too, was suffering:
Until this poem is over, I shall not leave This leaf, held like the heartache in my hand . . .
This small complete and perfect thing Cut off from wholeness is my heart’s suffering.
Scott was grieving, but he had the great advantage of a political career that allowed him to throw himself into external activities. In June 1944 the CCF had just won an enormous victory in Saskatchewan and, as one of Premier Tommy Douglas’s advisers, Scott was much involved in the installation of the new government. The CCF was ranking high in popular polls, and it seemed to have a good chance of forming the next national government.
Pat did not have this kind of release. Her father and brother were caught up in the war, in the struggle to hold the North Atlantic. But for the women at home—Pat, her mother, and Aunt Bibbi—the sphere was domestic. And Halifax society was just as stifling as she remembered. In mid-July she wrote to Jori Smith saying that her summer had been unproductive and that she felt like a "veteran limpet searching for a rock with no success." It seemed to her that Halifax life was a kind of society circus with "highly trained seals . . . dogs & fleas." She was desperate: "What possible solution is there for the 'likes of us'? One dreams of a place as you say where people live honestly & freely but I can’t really believe in it. The only true reality is work but at the moment the ink becomes rusted in my pen."