P.K. Page biographer reveals her method

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January 11, 2013

By Lynne Van Luven

“People generally don’t really think about mortality until they get into their 80s,” P.K. Page biographer Sandra Djwa was quoted as saying in a recent interview.

I find this statement intriguing because I think about death almost every day – decay in life, the future ever-impinging on the present, skull beneath the skin, that sort of thing. (Too much black-romantic poetry at an impressionable age, I suspect, augmented by too many news reports from trouble spots on the globe.)

It’s been almost three years since Page’s death on January 14, 2010, so I decided to attend Djwa’s public talk January 10, 2013, at a University of Victoria visit sponsored by The Malahat Review. Djwa, a gracious woman of 73, had visited poet Tim Lilburn’s class the day before, and now she was standing before us, her auburn hair glinting under the classroom lights, as she explained why her “private and sometimes reticent” subject, P.K. Page finally agreed to an interview.

Describing herself as “friends of a sort,” with Page, Djwa said that biography is a big commitment for anyone because it’s like “letting an interloper into your life . . . an intrusive, unwanted guest.” Djwa first met Page through her poetry in 1962; the two did not connect in person until 1970, when Page visited Djwa’s poetry class at Simon Fraser University, where Djwa is now professor emerita.

In February 1997, in a letter to Djwa, Page “wondered, can we do it?” Djwa quoted her own letter to the poet, in which she too questioned if she was up to the task. Obviously, she was, since Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page is one of five books short-listed for the $25,00 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

Djwa cited the extensive arsenal she used to forage for facts about her subject: interviews with the author and with people who knew her; letters and diaries; news reports and archival documents; the subject’s journals, and, of course, her poetry itself. “Memory,” noted Djwa, “is a very tricky reconstructive mechanism.”

Throughout her talk, Djwa charmed the audience with her wry, self-effacing wit. She suggested a biography was a reflection of one life obsessed by another, and she noted that she sometimes tested Page’s memories of a situation with others’ stories about the same event. She sub-titled her book “a life” not “the life,” she said, because every biography is the “life of a subject as seen by a specific biographer at a particular point” in that person’s life. Nobody ever knows everything about another human being.

She cited one scene in her biography in which she had substantiated Page’s memories of her early days by an interview with Mavis Gallant. From that, she forged a description. “Is it true?” she asked the audience after she read a passage. “Well, mostly.”

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