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the Way It Began
An Interview with P.K. Page at 92
by Joseph Blake
is perhaps the most distinctive element is her wealth of imagery
drawn from wide and varied sources, sharp and startling with the
force of the personality they reveal.
Alan Crawley on PK Page’s 1946 debut poetry book, As Ten
summer, the acclaimed late-poet and painter PK Page at 92 welcomed
interviewer Joseph Blake to her Uplands home in the Victoria area’s
Oak Bay. Greeted at the door by Page’s home care worker
and tiny, white guard dog, Blake climbed the stairs to her living
room, where the poet, dressed elegantly and as beautiful as ever,
sat in a hard-backed chair ready for a one and a half hour recorded
interview conversation, most of which follows. Her reminiscences
were occasionally punctuated with chuckles, grimaces and laughter.
Among other subjects, Page describes her earliest memories of
the writing scene in BC. We believe this is the last major interview
that P.K. gave. Many thanks to UFV Press/Anvil Press for permission
to excerpt from Making Waves, a new anthology of critical commentary
on B.C. and Pacific Northwest literature, Trevor Carolan, ed.,
* * *
JB: Can we
begin by asking you to share your earliest memories of the writing
scene in B.C.?
PKP: I came
out here in the 1940s, during the war. But before that I met Anne
Marriott, and she was a poet in Victoria who wrote a very fine,
long poem, “The Wind Our Enemy,” about the drought
in Saskatchewan. I met her in Quebec at a conference, and she
said there was someone here by the name of Alan Crawley, and that
Alan, inspired by Dorothy Livesay, Doris Ferne, Anne Marriott
herself, and Floris Clark McLaren were urging Alan to edit a poetry
got to remember in those days there was no Canada Council, no
granting bodies for writers, no magazines that published poetry.
Saturday Night occasionally published a poem as filler, and my
husband [Arthur Irwin]i (who was not my husband then), did commission
E.J. Pratt to write a long poem about Dunkirk for Macleans, but
normally nobody published poetry. Oh, Canadian Forum published
poems, but a poetry magazine simply didn’t exist in the
country when Alan began this magazine, Contemporary Verse. We
had no magazines and no funding bodies, and there were a lot of
us beginning to write and wanting to publish. So these four women
persuaded Alan, (who incidentally was blind) to undertake the
editing of a magazine that was called Contemporary Verse.
Alan was blind.
Everything had to be read to him. He had been a very successful
lawyer in Winnipeg who had a very rare germ attack the optic nerve,
and he went blind when he was in his forties. He always loved
poetry. He always loved theatre and poetry, and he used to go
every year to England. He used to go to poetry readings in London,
and he was used to poetry through the ear. When he had eyesight,
he read a lot.
Alan to bring out Contemporary Verse. Anne Marriott told me it
was coming out, and she said, “Why don’t you send
him some work?” and I did. In fact, I had two or three or
four poems in the first issue of CV.
was a great supporter of the magazine and of Alan. Floris McLaren
took on the business management of it. She also wrote poetry,
published a booked called Frozen Fire, I think. To the best of
my knowledge, that’s the way poetry began on the West Coast
Because there wasn’t another poetry magazine, Alan drew
from all over Canada. First issue was 1941. He stopped finally
after more than a decade, 39 issues. He published everyone in
Canada — Earle Birney, A.J.M. Smith, F.R. Scott, Jay MacPherson,
Anne Wilkinson, Louis Dudek: anybody who ever amounted to anything
and a lot of people who didn’t.
JB: What Alan
Crawley like to work with?
PKP: He was
very frank with his criticism if you sent him work that he didn’t
like…and it was difficult, because he had to use a Braille
typewriter. Sometimes the messages you could hardly make heads
or tail of—but they were always worth struggling with, because
he was so honest with you, and he had a good ear.
Now, a little
bit later, in Montreal, Preview was started, and I was one of
the Preview people. My father had died and I brought my mother
out to Victoria to settle her down, but where I really was working
was in Montreal, and there they started a magazine called Preview.
It has nothing to do with the West Coast, except there was a sort
of germination going on. The West Coast began it and Montreal
next, not Toronto. It was the West Coast and then Montreal, which
is very interesting.
JB: When you
moved out here in the 1960s, was there much of a writing community
Skelton owned it, and he wouldn’t have anything to do with
me. He excluded me. I was not part of anything. He taught at University
of Victoria, and he had Susan Musgrave and Marilyn Bowering and
all these young writers. He knew a great deal about poetry, Skelton,
a very great deal, [icily] very informed.
He and another
professor at UVic [John Peters] started the Malahat Review. The
two of them were joint editors, I think. In the beginning he didn’t
publish any Canadians. I got into a terrible public fight with
him about it.
had letters from all of us. He had an enormous body of correspondence
from all the writers in Canada who he had written to. He was broke,
Alan, in his old age, terribly broke, and he lived in a terrible
little shack on Lee Avenue. Somebody suggested to him that he
sell his letters to some university, and he offered them to UVic
and Skelton turned them down. He said there was nothing there
of any interest. And he was buying letters from European writers.
Alan finally sold them to Kingston, to Queens I think. He sold
them somewhere, but Alan was absolutely dashed when this trove
of letters was rejected. Academia [grimacing] is probably one
of the bitchiest areas in the world.
very day, there’s a Page-Irwin Colloquium Room being opened
at Trent. They asked for some paintings, and I gave them some
of my paintings, and Zailig Pollock, a professor there is doing
my collected works, both on the Web and in print. University of
Toronto is going to publish them all. They have been so generous
to me. I can’t tell you how generous they’ve been
to me. It isn’t always that academia is bitchy; I think
there’s something weird about UVic.
always felt excluded from it as well, and I remember Victoria-based,
jazz great Paul Horn telling me he always felt excluded from it
PKP: Me too.
I was excluded from it, quite actively. They really had very little
interest in me, and I don’t care. It doesn’t bother
me. I get more attention than I deserve already. So it isn’t
a problem for me, but it is curious.
JB: How about
the writing community or the artistic—the painting community?
Were you part of that?
PKP: Oh, I
was excluded from the artistic community too.
JB: By the
the Limners. They had everybody in town, photographers, anyone
you can think of, but not me.
JB: Did the
Limners include writers, poets?
they had Skelton. He did little collages of some kind. No, I’m
very happy here now. I’ve got good friends, but the first
years here I felt excluded from everything. I was! I didn’t
merely feel it, I was!
JB: What about
Ivy’s Bookshop? Wasn’t there a salon-like reading
PKP: Ivy (Mickleson)
was wonderful, as you know. Oh, Ivy was wonderful! A genius in
her own way, knew about books; knew about how to run a bookshop,
knew about how to have contact with her customers. She’d
quickly glom-on to your taste in literature, and if she saw anything
she thought was of interest to you she’d phone you up and
say, “I don’t know if this would be of interest to
you, but the next pass-by you might want to look at…”
She started doing readings, which were quite interesting, fistfights
and all kinds of excitement. I wasn’t involved in the fistfights,
but I did a lot of readings…
She was a
wonder, a remarkable little being. Integrity, the two of them,
Aida and Ivy. Aida doing the bookkeeping, and Ivy doing the books.
They were a fine team, but Ivy was a character.
JB: This is
a little off-topic but Ivy once took my wife and I under her wing,
adopted us really. Friday afternoons we’d spend drinking
gin and tonic and discussing politics and books at her beach shack
on Gonzales Bay. She didn’t know why my wife and I wanted
another child, but when our daughter Emma was born, she became
the baby’s doting grandmother.
PKP: She didn’t
understand marriage either. Her mother had told her “Only
marry if you’re desperate.” There was nothing material
about Ivy. She didn’t want material possessions, on another
plane altogether, extraordinary. She was the most loyal friend
to me. There was nobody like Ivy.
Carr is another famous Victoria character. Was Carr or her work
an influence on you?
PKP: No. No.
She was alive when I first came to Victoria, but I never met her,
and I don’t think I’d seen any of her work then. There
wasn’t an art gallery when I came here first. So there wouldn’t
be anywhere to hang them even if anyone had the wit to recognize
that they were good.
JB: Were you
PKP: I didn’t
start painting until Brazil. I couldn’t write in Brazil,
and I started painting. I was studying Portuguese very hard. I
had given up smoking, and I associated smoking with writing, and
I was not hearing much English, and my language seemed to dry
up, and I started drawing. I remember a very famous Israeli painter,
Arie Aroch who said to me in Brazil, “Why do you give up
an art form that you have mastered to start work in an art form
where you don’t even know there’s more than one [shade
of] white in the world? You know nothing.” And I said, “I
didn’t give up writing, it gave me up.” He replied,
“I think you’re making a mistake” So I said,
“Arie, come see my work one day, would you, and then talk
to me.” And he came, and he said, “I take it all back.”
He said “You begin like a pro.”
JB: You achieved
international recognition as a writer from Canada. Wasn’t
one of your early poems included in Treasury of Modern Poetry
for Scribner’s in New York?
PKP: I don’t
Williams included it in the collection …
PKP: Oh yes,
I was in that. I was being published quite early in Poetry too,
which was the Chicago magazine, THE poetry magazine really, still
exists. I’ve got a poem coming out in their next issue,
I think. I won one of their prizes in the ’40s. I’ve
had a lot of breaks. That’s the only way I can tell it.
you consider the opportunity to travel “one of the breaks”?
was certainly a break. I’ve had a lot of breaks. I’ve
had good men in my life. I haven’t been subjected to some
of the awful things that some women have either through their
fathers or their lovers. I haven’t had all the travels I
would like to have, but I’ve had very interesting travels.
JB: Do you
think your travel has been much of an influence on your work?
PKP: I don’t
know…I don’t know. It’s very hard to know what
influences you. I don’t like the word “influence”.
I think the word “affinity” is much better than influence.
JB: What about
painting and writing? I don’t want to say do they influence
each other, but do they live in the same realm?
I don’t know. When I was painting I wasn’t writing
and when I was writing I wasn’t painting. It wasn’t
deliberate. I just get totally absorbed in the one thing, and
it didn’t leave me time or room for anything else.
JB: Were there
painters in Victoria who you associated with?
PKP: Do you
mean in the ’40s?
JB: No, when
you were painting.
PKP: Pat Bates.
She and I, both of us, felt ignored by the local community. Pat
was finally accepted, and I suppose I was finally accepted too.
Pat was really the only artist I knew.
JB: Was there
any relationship with musicians like the Adaskins?
Adaskin was in Vancouver. Harry loved poetry and used to read
poetry at the Vancouver Public Library. I was vaguely in touch
with him, because he used to get in touch with me about reading
poems of mine. And then Murray, his brother, moved here and I
knew Murray very well. I wrote the libretto or whatever you call
it for The Musicians of Bremen, which the Victoria Symphony had
commissioned, and I worked with Murray. I don’t remember
being part of much of an artistic community here at all. There
were individual contacts, not community.
JB: Did you
know Leonard Cohen?
is 20 years younger than I am. But I was in Montreal and knew
all the writers in Montreal. Now in Montreal we did have a community.
That’s when we formed the Preview group and there were artists
connected with us one way or another. There was a very active
creative community there. It was wartime, and we had no money
to do anything, but we were a community. A.M. Klein was probably
our best poet in my opinion, and F.R. Scott…
JB: What about
were two groups, the Preview group and the First Statement group.
Layton was in the First Statement group and Louis Dudek was in
First Statement, but we all knew each other, fought with each
other. There were a lot of artists affiliated with the group too…film
people. There was a real sense of an artistic community there.
I left Montreal and Cohen grew up just after I left and knew all
these people. Layton badmouthed Cohen. Layton was a wretched man.
He really was. He trashed women. I’ve never not spoken to
anyone in my life, even if I disliked them, except Layton. I finally
wouldn’t. It was because I despised him so. But he wrote
some good poetry. He wrote some very good poetry. I could have
forgiven him being a womanizer; lots of men are, but to trash
somebody, unforgivable. I saw women absolutely destroyed by Layton.
JB: What about
Trudeau? A different kind of man, I imagine?
PKP: He was
much more of an intellectual than Layton, I guess. I was a great
fan of Trudeau and knew him slightly, very slightly. He read poetry,
and he liked my poetry, which was always very flattering. He said
it in print somewhere, I don’t know where. He was a charmer,
an absolute charmer. He gave you his full attention when he was
talking to you. He wasn’t looking around to see who else
was around. It was as if you and he were alone in a room together
talking. It was very intimate in a way. I don’t mean personally
intimate. He created an atmosphere of intimacy. He was fabulous.
I can’t remember his faults now. He did one or two political
things that I didn’t approve of, but I think he was wonderful
always been NDP, but I’m a little upset with Carole James
and her stand on the Carbon Tax. [Premier Gordon] Campbell is
a slippery fellow, a clever, clever bugger. Have you met him?
I have, and you couldn’t meet a more charming man. There
are two of him. His social self, who is witty and charming, and
his political self, who is…mean-spirited? Seems so to me.
I got an Order of B.C. and he was there at the ceremony shaking
hands and getting photographed, and he said “I don’t
imagine any of your friends would want a copy of this photo.”
[Laughing] It disarms you. The private man is quite witty and
fast and charming.
notice the tape recorder for the first time, Page interjects:]
“I forgot that I’m being taped…”
JB: You mentioned
Dorothy Livesay earlier.
was a great one for boosting herself, and she didn’t stint
in that. We didn’t get on, Dorothy and I, but I admired
her. She was feisty, liberated a lot of young women. She wrote
a passionate piece about the Japanese-Canadians ii when nobody
in Canada was paying any attention to the Japanese. She was an
activist. I didn’t like her poetry. I found it far too sentimental
for my taste, but I admired her for all of that. She was an influence
for good, I think. A whole lot of young women were freed by her,
which is quite a record to have. Women are much freer today. In
the fight to be free of male domination, women have had to face
a lot of hard jobs.
JB: It seems
many successful women have still had to choose between career
advancement and having children. Do you think so?
we don’t need families too much. We’re overpopulated
already, but we’ve got to go on having children. It’s
really a problem for China, India, and countries emulating our
lifestyle. They won’t be able to do it. There are too many
problems. I’m glad I’m not going to have to cope with
all of that. I’m getting out of it. I’m getting out
JB: Have you
written poems about these problems?
PKP: I don’t
seem to write about issues.
JB: What about
a poem like “Planet Earth” where you conclude with
a beautiful short line about “smoothing the holy surfaces”?
PKP: I wasn’t
writing about it as an issue. It was an issue of course. I’ve
been going on about global warming since the 1970s. I wrote that
short story “Unless the Eye Catch Fire” iii that was
performed as a one-woman show, and this was before the scientists
were talking about global warming. I can’t say I was prescient.
I was just writing a story, that’s all I was doing. So,
I suppose you could say I do write about issues, but it wasn’t
Two of my books are being launched today at Trent. One is probably
the last serious book I’m going to write. When I say serious,
I mean of any substance. It’s a book of new poems called
Coal and Roses, and I doubt I’ll write another. I don’t
know if I have any more writing in me. I’ve got a kid’s
book called The Old Woman and the Hen…Anyhow, I’ve
had a lot of books out in the last few years of my life. It’s
i Arthur Irwin, editor, publisher, diplomat and ardent Canadian
nationalist married Page in 1950 and moved to Victoria with her
in 1964, where he was publisher of the Times Colonist until 1971.
He died in 1999 at 101 years.
ii Dorothy Livesay. Call My People Home. Original CBC broadcast,
Vancouver, March 1949. In Collected Poems: The Two Seasons. Toronto:
McGraw-Hill Ryerson. 1972. pp. 180-194.
iii Page, P.K. Unless the Eye Catch Fire. Toronto: Full Spectrum
Blake writes on international travel for many journals and is
jazz columnist for PRRB.