Pacific Rim Review of Books

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That’s the Way It Began
An Interview with P.K. Page at 92

Interview by Joseph Blake

What 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 As Twenty

This past 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., 2010.

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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 magazine.

Now, you’ve 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.

They persuaded 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.

Dorothy Livesay 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 in Canada.
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 in Victoria?

PKP: Well, 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.

Alan Crawley 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.

Today, this 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.

JB: I’ve always felt excluded from it as well, and I remember Victoria-based, jazz great Paul Horn telling me he always felt excluded from it too…

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 painters?

PKP: Yes, the Limners. They had everybody in town, photographers, anyone you can think of, but not me.

JB: Did the Limners include writers, poets?

PKP: Well, 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 scene there?

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.

JB: Emily 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 painting then?

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 know it.

JB: Oscar 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.

JB: Would you consider the opportunity to travel “one of the breaks”?

PKP: That 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?

PKP: Well, 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?

PKP: Harry 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?

PKP: Leonard 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 Irving Layton?

PKP: There 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. Weird…

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 nevertheless…

I’ve 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.

[Seeming to notice the tape recorder for the first time, Page interjects:] “I forgot that I’m being taped…”

JB: You mentioned Dorothy Livesay earlier.

PKP: Dorothy 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?

PKP: Maybe 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 of it.

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 deliberately.
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 quite remarkable.

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 Press, 1994.

Joseph Blake writes on international travel for many journals and is jazz columnist for PRRB.