The following is excerpted from the Maclean's article The life of P.K. Page: Exclusive excerpt from a new biography: A riveting portrait of an artist as a young — and old — woman:
When the respected scholar, author and critic Sandra Djwa embarked on Journey With No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page more than a decade ago, she had no inkling of how challenging or far-flung the expedition would be. It’s the first biography of the charismatic, convention-defying female poet and painter who inspired a generation of writers, including Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje and Alice Munro. The St. John’s, Nfld. native, whose prior studies of CanLit include acclaimed biographies of Roy Daniells and F.R. Scott, calls it “the most difficult book I’ve ever written.”
Djwa, 73, first read Page in 1962. “It was an astonishing poem about first love—simple, delicate, yet fierce.” In 1970, she invited the poet—by then P.K. Irwin after marrying diplomat (and former Maclean’s editor-in-chief) Arthur Irwin—to address her class at Simon Fraser University, where she taught Canadian literature from 1968 to 2005 and is now a professor emeritus. Djwa’s first impression of Page? “Oh, quick, quirky, witty, somewhat temperamental. You never knew what to expect.” In 1997, when she was 80, Page approached Djwa to write her life story. Part of their agreement was that Page would submit to interviews but would not have final say over the book’s content, which delves into her complicated love affair with the married F.R. Scott in the ’40s. Biographers have one responsibility, Djwa says: “To tell the truth, as much as you can know it.”
Establishing that truth could be challenging. “P.K. was all over the place,” says Djwa, referring to Page’s peripatetic life. She was born in England in 1916, zigzagged across the Prairies as a child, settled in Montreal in the ’40s, then travelled with Irwin when he was posted in South America and Austrialia, locales that inspired her colourful, lush landscapes. In the mid-’60s the couple returned to Victoria, where Page died in 2010.