A Conversation with P.K. Page

by John Orange

What follows is a transcript of a longer conversation that I had with P.K. Page in the summer of 1984 when I was working on a monograph on her works for the Canadian Writers and Their Works series. I had asked for an interview in order to clarify some of my thoughts and she had graciously invited me to visit her at home. After being shown around the back garden and meeting her husband Arthur, who was using the bright, sunny day to trim the plants, we settled down with some delicious strawberry-lemon tarts and coffee. I asked her about her earliest writing and then moved to her early interests and influences. I wondered about her reaction to various labels now attached to her and that led us to her interests in altered states of consciousness, dreams and Sufism. We wound up talking about regionalism and the artists on display at the gallery in Vancouver. Before I left, P.K. gave me the Idries Shah book on Sufism to read and added the caveat that she did not want to be perceived as proselytizing for Sufism in any way. I should like to take this opportunity to thank P.K. Page publicly for her patience and kindness, and King's College for its assistance. The present version has been reedited by P.K. Page very recently.

Interviewer: You wrote two early poems, "Ecce Homo" and another in the same year, with the image of a woman leaning over water and seeing her reflection beside a tree and even becoming a tree. Was there a mythology you were interested in when you wrote The Sun and the Moon?

Respondent: It's very difficult for me to answer that because I don't remember. But I had read little mythology at the time, beyond the Greek myths retold for children. I was quite young, even younger than my chronological years, and I hadn't gone to university or been brought up in a world of literary people. In other words, I hadn't been exposed to the literature that many people of my age, with comparable interests, might have been. I first wrote the novel as a short story and sent it somewhere — my recollection is of sending it to Queen's Quarterly, but I may be mistaken — and received a letter back suggesting I make it into a novel. So I dutifully sat down and attempted to do just that. This may account for its being such a padded piece of writing. The original idea came from having had a curious experience in which I became an inanimate object — or thought I did. Imagined I did. I had read Wolf Solent by John Cowper Powys and it had an extraordinary effect upon me. Powys was interested in varieties of magic connected with Dorset. Reading about them evidently liberated something in me, and some part of my imagination was projected into a small wooden stool — actually, it was that little stool over there, with the pile of books on it. It doesn't make any sense and I'm not trying to give it any importance, but it was that that made me create Kristin. I never had it happen again and I didn't identify myself with Kristin beyond that one shared experience.

Interviewer: What made you think of making Karl into an artist?

Respondent: Oh, I suppose that was just a romantic notion. I had known a lot of artists in my life.

Interviewer: It's fascinating how if one reads Fraser and learns about all these nymphs and dryads turning into trees and so on, and then how Jung says that there are archetypes that come up from a collective unconscious, and then see how at the end you seem to have left Kristin in a state between one thing and another, not really being able to be human but not being a tree either . . .

Respondent: That didn't worry me at all. I was a romantic and this was an act of love on Kristin's part. Just for a minute, imagine yourself Kristin, with this unholy, vampirish "talent" — which could take over and destroy the man you loved. What would you do? It seems to me she had no choice but to use it in a direction where it would do least harm. She had to sacrifice herself, to perform the ultimate act of love of which she was capable. And she did.

Interviewer: It is very romantic the way it is written, but did the irony of the ending occur to you — that Karl was left in the lurch, and Kristin left really nowhere; or did it just seem romantic to you that she would make this complete sacrifice?

Respondent: I realized he was in a jam, but I thought that he was better off than he would have been had she taken him over. She had no other options as far as I could see.

Interviewer: Can we read the book as a feminist book? The mother, Grace, who makes those compromises in favour of her husband, is potentially special, like Kristin, but she evidently settled into a conventional middle class life and missed out on something. This leads us to expect that Kristin is going to gain something when she sacrifices her love for Karl. But then she misses out too; so either way the women go in favour of love, they are going to wind up empty.

Respondent: I wonder what I would think now if I read it for the first time. It's interesting to hear a more sophisticated interpretation of what was to me a simple love story. Although it wasn't as simple a love story as all that because I was well aware that the mother had compromised. It was, to some extent, a rebellion on my part, that book. I was living in a very bourgeois world in Saint John, New Brunswick, and I led an incredibly conventional life — running around to parties. I was critical of the people of that world — of how they toed the line, of what I thought was their hypocrisy. I can hardly think the book reads as satire, but by creating the social milieu in which Kristin lived, I was attempting satire.

Interviewer: Karl mentions a few women that he has known before. One is named Egg, I think, and the description of those women is that they have created an image for themselves which is a false image and consequently they seem to be arrested in their development.

Respondent: Well, I suppose I was reflecting something that was true of society at that time, without doing it consciously. I was an early feminist. I had an aunt who had been a suffragette and I can remember one of the first things I wrote after I left school was a paper on the suffragettes, so I was already thinking in feminist terms. But I'm not sure that I knew that I was giving expression to them in the novel.

Interviewer: It interested me that Margaret Atwood took an interest in the novel because in Surfacing there is the same pattern of a woman who returns to some sort of atavistic connection to nature, but when she moves back to patriarchal society there doesn't seem to be any way of integrating what she has discovered. So it made sense that Atwood found your novel worthwhile because you had left Kristin in a state of suspension too. Do you consider yourself a feminist writer?

Respondent: I consider myself a feminist but not a feminist writer. In The Sun and the Moon, in addition to love, I was concerned with empathy. When the moment came for me to make that short story into a novel — to flesh it out — I attempted a critical look at the conventional world around me, into which I have never felt I fitted. But my real interests were much more in altered states of consciousness which, I suppose, still interest me.

Interviewer: You have mentioned that you have affinities with other poets, but when you talk about Patrick Anderson you say that his writing had some technical influence on your writing — that he moved you out of conventional patterns. Can you remember the kinds of things you got from him?

Respondent: At Preview meetings we read aloud to each other what we had written the previous week. It was hearing Patrick's poetry read that influenced me; then reading it afterwards and seeing his patterns and how he made them.

Interviewer: So it was studying his poems. You weren't taking direct technical advice. . .

Respondent: No, no. Nothing like that at all. In fact Patrick wouldn't have given me any advice. He wasn't that kind of a man. He was protective of his own powers and talents, and he wanted disciples. But the whole texture of his language affected me — got in through the pores of my skin somehow — osmosis.

Interviewer: Was it rhythms? The density of imagery? Form?

Respondent: I would think it was the density of image. I doubt that it was the form. I've always been tighter than he was. He used to be critical of the fact that my poems usually ended, as he described it, with their tail in their mouth. He felt they were too circular, too neat; that they should be open ended. This wasn't advising me; this was being critical of me — that I was being too tidy. So I don't think that he had an affect on my form, but he certainly did in the density of image, and the texture of the language. And then, of course, the whole Preview group broke my head wide open with the things they knew that I didn't. You see, I was that girl who wrote The Sun and the Moon when I met the Preview group.

Interviewer: When the Preview group discussed writing, did they discuss theories of poetry in general and abstract ways, or did they just read a particular poem and then talk about that poem?

Respondent: As I remember it (and maybe I only remember what was important to me), we mainly discussed the poems or prose that were read at the meeting — whether we thought they should go into the next issue, what we liked about them and what we didn't like, although when I think of my part in it, I realize I wasn't very articulate about my reasons. I always knew what I liked and didn't like, but I didn't have strong reasons why.

Interviewer: So it wasn't a matter of talking about "objective correlatives" or somebody's theory of poetry and then trying to make a poem out of the theory.

Respondent: No. Never trying to make a poem out of the theory. We talked ideas, but they were mainly political ideas because there was a lot of political ferment in Preview.

Interviewer: At the end of the 1940's, A.J.M. Smith and John Sutherland debated in print about whether or not you were more Freudian than Marxist or vice versa. In those days, did you consider yourself either one?

Respondent: Well, I'd read neither Marx nor Freud at that time. Now, with a clearer idea of what a Freudian is and what a Marxist is, I would say that I didn't think of myself as either. But I was interested in psychology. I was reading Jung's Modern Man in Search of His Soul, and I was torn as to which was the better route: the attempt to change oneself or to change society. I thought the two routes conflicted but that perhaps the political way was healthier than the psychoanalytical because the latter involved the self too much.

Interviewer: By "psychoanalytical way" and "political way", you mean a way of understanding experience, or a way of organizing your life or. . . ?

Respondent: Perhaps understanding and organizing, both.

Interviewer: When I read those poems of the 1940's and 1950's, I don't find any ideological commitment to either Marx or Freud.

Respondent: I'm sure there wasn't.

Interviewer: It seemed like an artificial argument to me, as though labels were being pinned onto you fairly early.

Respondent: Well, ideas were in the air. We had a friend, not a member of Preview, who must have been the first person any of us knew who was going to a psychiatrist. He used to regale us with stories of what went on when he lay extended on the couch. These ideas were relatively new then in Canada and they excited and interested us. Also Patrick was a card carrying Communist, and Scott was an active Socialist. I was neither, but as a natural rebel I had a great deal of sympathy with the ideas of the left.

Interviewer: The labels got pinned on fairly early, and I couldn't quite figure out why your writing would be called Freudian because I couldn't find much evidence that there was even much overt interest in psychoanalytical symbolism. It didn't seem like the kind of poetry that was arranged by Freudian theory. Interpretation, of course, is another matter. . .

Respondent: If I was interested in any psychologist, it was Jung, not Freud.

Interviewer: How about the label I just came across in an anthology where, in the little writeup at the beginning, they call you a Neo-Platonist and assess your writing as Neo-Platonic. Does that label mean anything to you?

Respondent: Not really. I don't much like labels. But how did they arrive at that?

Interviewer: If I remember correctly, they come at it through the notion of pure form or ideal beauty that is to be translated through poetry; and they call the idea Neo-Platonic, that the artist sees the vision outside the cave, not just the shadows on the wall, and tries to translate it into poetry.

Respondent: I think it is one of the functions of the true artist to try to see the vision outside the cave, and to express it in language, for one's own time.

Interviewer: Transcendentalist. Does that label make sense to you?

Respondent: Well, as labels go, I would be pleased to have that applied to me. Surely the one thing in the world one wants to do is transcend.

Interviewer: Mystic. How does that strike you?

Respondent: With a hollow ring. I don't for a minute think of myself as a mystic.

Interviewer: What would be the difference between you and a mystic?

Respondent: To begin with, the mystic, if he talked at all, would know what he was talking about, whereas I don't. Also, he would have direct perception, which I haven't. If that is too curt an answer, let me speculate. We know from recent brain hemisphere studies that there is the lineal lobe and the holistic lobe; that we think with the left, dream with the right. Perhaps, if one were a mystic, the two lobes would work together. Or, if we accept McLean's three brain theory, perhaps the mystic would have access to the new brain on a continuing basis, while still having available — but not being at the mercy of — the reptile and mammalian brains. Either way, the mystic would have a new kind of knowledge which I don't have. My becoming a stool as I did — or as I imagined I did — has nothing to do with mysticism, I feel sure.

Interviewer: You have mentioned before the latent impression that Rilke's work made on you and how the notion of angels came back to you through Middle Eastern poets. I've read interviews where you talk about angels as the highest faculties in man. I wonder if I can pin you down a bit on those faculties. Do you think of those "highest" faculties as intelligence, emotions, imagination or what?

Respondent: Once again, I don't know what I'm talking about. That was a quotation from either Ibn El-Arabi or El-Ghazali. I think it was El-Arabi. This is pure surmise, but perhaps the higher faculties result from the two lobes of the mind working together. I don't see mysticism as anything "aerie fairy". I see it as tough-minded, born of discipline.

     Cowper Powys was a strange writer. He wrote, among other things, an extraordinary book on Merlin, a novel on Glastonbury, and another on the brazen head. I can't talk from experience, only from imaginative leaps, but the brazen head seems to me an image of what happens when the two lobes of the mind work together.

Interviewer: When you talked about empathy before, is that an emotional connection, or something more complete than that?

Respondent: Sympathy is emotional. I would think empathy is more complete than that, wouldn't you? Do you have moments when you are suddenly inside another person, just for a fleeting second, and you think you know everything about them? You can tell them things in those moments that frighten them half to death. I see that as empathy. But you only have it for a split second, or I do. I don't know how the head works and I suppose it's because I don't know that I'm so interested.

Interviewer: You're convinced that it's not just some trick of perception?

Respondent: No, I'm not convinced. I'm not convinced of anything. It may be a psychological trick. There's a very interesting series of tapes called "Perception and Reality", and it almost persuades me that practically everything I perceive is some sort of a trick.

Interviewer: Do the birds in your poems . . .

Respondent: Relate to angels?

Interviewer: Yes. I always thought that they did.

Respondent: They must be of the same order in some kind of way mustn't they? But lower on the scale. The fact they have hollow bones and are so light and their temperatures and heartbeats are quite different from ours . . .

Interviewer: And in your poems they tend to show up at crucial times, don't they? Often when a transformation can take place . . .

Respondent: Do they? I'm not aware of that. Certainly in "Arras". Yes, that's true. That's the only one I can think of off hand.

Interviewer: Because of some of the authors that you have mentioned in interviews — Popper, Ornstein, and Paul McLean — you give the impression that you are interested in finding some sort of empirical basis for understanding what happens in one's head?

Respondent: Yes, that's true.

Interviewer: That would make you not so much a mystic . . .

Respondent: I'm not sure. Sufism, about which I know very little, despite a lot of reading, is referred to as a "body of knowledge." So I don't know how far mysticism is away from . . .

Interviewer: From neural physics?

Respondent: Yes.

Interviewer: It interests me that you would come at searching for an explanation for these sorts of phenomena, not from a philosophical, abstract position, but through some way of accounting for energy. In other words, it seems to me you're not trying to leave the world behind the way some critics see you — life-denying Manichean, Gnostic, anti-life and so on. Do you feel in any way that there are two planes of existence unrelated to each other except in the most tenuous ways?

Respondent: No! No! Of course not. I think everything is immensely integrated. I think, as far as I'm capable of understanding at all, that things are intermeshed. They're just of different degrees of coarseness, let us say . . . they're all part of the same thing but it goes from gross to fine and. . .

Interviewer: And a refinement can take place?

Respondent: And a refinement can take place.

Interviewer: You talk about the poet as medium . . .

Respondent: I say that simply because my own writing is so unwilled. I write badly, almost like a child when I have to sit down and deliberately write something. So when I produce anything that is acceptable I find it hard to believe it comes directly from me. It seems to have come in at an angle somehow — from where I don't know. When I go back over old notebooks I'm never sure I was the author of the entries. I often have such doubts about whether they're mine that I don't dare use them.

Interviewer: When you say that poems sometimes come to you in dreams, do you mean literally in dreams, when you're sound asleep and dreaming or is it day-dreaming or . . .

Respondent: No, I don't mean that poems come in dreams. Not like that poor woman with her "higamus hogamus." I mean that the subject matter of a poem is from a dream — the images. The short story "Unless the Eye Catch Fire", was the result of a dream. I dreamed those colours.

Interviewer: And then when you work on it when you're awake, does it take its own form or. . .?

Respondent: It takes another turn. The whole poem "Another Space" was a dream, but I didn't dream the poem. I dreamed about those people on the beach and I carried the dream around in my head for about seven years. I didn't understand what it meant but I felt it had real meaning for me. Then one day it started to write itself as a poem.

Interviewer: When you rework a poem, do you find yourself doing one kind of thing more than another?

Respondent: I think the thing that I look for is a pattern of sounds which I either intensify or diminish. Sometimes I am concerned with speeding up a line or slowing it down.

Interviewer: For a conscious effect?

Respondent: For a conscious effect.

Interviewer: When you write a poem, do you think of it as something that will be read aloud?

Respondent: No. I don't think of anything when I'm writing a poem.

Interviewer: So it's not that you're conscious of an audience?

Respondent: Never.

Interviewer: Do you read it aloud to yourself, then, when you're writing it, for the sound patterns?

Respondent: Very often. Especially when I've finished. I read it onto my tape recorder and so pick up aurally things that I haven't seen. It's not that I'm thinking of the poem being read aloud; it's more that some inner ear has to be satisfied.

Interviewer: Is it the ear that tells you when the poem is finished?

Respondent: I don't always know when the poem is finished. Perhaps some of my poems finish too late and some don't finish. When I can't do anything more, I guess, is the point when. . .

Interviewer: What impresses you most about Sufism specifically?

Respondent: How can I answer that? When I read The Sufis by Idries Shah, with its introduction by Robert Graves, it was with a kind of recognition. I suppose one is born with an aspirational drive, with a sense of there being something higher than oneself. Since adolescence, this awareness has taken me on a search. Jung's Modern Man in Search of His Soul was an early step on the way which led me to The Sufis.

Interviewer: In that sense of recognition, what did you recognize?

Respondent: Many things. Let me give you an example: the systems of abjad — or, as it is called, the secret language — turns letters into numbers, regroups them and turns them back into other letters, and so provides language with another level of meaning for those who can read it. Discovering this inevitably triggered my memory of the secret languages children learn, but I think it triggered something else as well. For a long time I've had this notion that language is capable of containing many meanings — that there could be another scale, as it were — and this confirmed it.

Interviewer: So it's not as a belief system that it interests you?

Respondent: No. No. Sufism, as I understand it, isn't a belief system. I'm sure it would simplify life. But Sufism can't be it.

Interviewer: You write about a nostalgia or a hope for unity, or lost oneness, or the regaining of Eden. In some circles that is interpreted as the center of the labyrinth where the minotaur is. A death wish. Do you find yourself writing more about death?

Respondent: In that Evening Dance of the Grey Flies there was a lot about death. As one gets closer to death it is less inimical.

Interviewer: The oneness or unity. Is that ever connected with death in your imagination?

Respondent: Not really. No, I don't think so. I suppose it could be, but it could also be connected with love. I am inclined to believe in immortality in some form — or let me phrase it differently — I incline towards the idea of immortality. "Believe" is a word I'm uneasy with even when I use it — or especially when I use it. But I don't think death necessarily is unity with the Godhead. One may not have evolved far enough. Surely it's not all that quick and easy.

Interviewer: You think of human beings as at least capable of evolving towards that One.

Respondent: I like to think that. I don't know that I believe it, but I like to think it.

Interviewer: Have you always thought that way? I notice even in your early poems there are portraits of people who seem to have missed an opportunity entirely, and the sub-text of the poem seems to be a tone of regret that something didn't happen that could have happened. Am I on the track of something, do you think? That there was the possibility of evolving, of taking another step, of being transformed even, and it didn't happen and now they have become something else.

Respondent: I only remember that in relation to the poem "Elegy", which isn't a very good poem. In it I regret the subject's incapacity to get past a certain point in her own personality.

Interviewer: Those portraits of landladies and paranoids etc. seem to me to be significant as portraits of those who seem caught, lost, trapped, or arrested somehow; who didn't recognize an opportunity?

Respondent: Perhaps you're right. I wrote them in Montreal during the war when for the first time I came up against people who were totally different from those I had known when I lived with my family. I was appalled by what seemed to be the smallness of their lives, and concerned that so many of them seemed cornered. This may have been arrogant of me. I may have misjudged their potential.

     I had been brought up to believe — there's that word again! — that we are capable of evolving, and suddenly, almost overnight, I found myself working with people whose economic conditions seemed to offer no opportunity for further growth. My father was great on mind over matter, but it occurred to me at that time that it was easier when you had some matter to have your mind over — that poverty lowered your ceiling. Incidentally, my father wasn't a Christian Scientist. He wasn't anything. He was a very free thinker.

Interviewer: You weren't brought up with an orthodox religious training?

Respondent: No. Both parents were free-thinkers. I suppose that's the term you use for it although it wouldn't have been their term. They would have said they were agnostics. But both of them were aware of something larger than themselves and they conveyed that to us, I think. I actually was confirmed in the Church of England when my friends were, out of an adolescent need to conform. But even as I was doing it, you might say for social reasons, nevertheless there was something in me that wanted it to change me, wanted a miracle to occur.

Interviewer: In Vancouver I saw the Alex Colville showing, and then there's the Emily Carr exhibition in the gallery. I was looking at Colville's animals whose feet don't touch the ground, and Emily Carr's theosophical paintings, and I got thinking about regional influences. Is Victoria a place that stimulates poetry for you or are you a regional writer in any sense?

Respondent: I'm not a regional writer.

Interviewer: Does being by the sea in British Columbia help bring your poetry about, or does it matter?

Respondent: Well, I've lived here twice in my life, once during the forties and now this last patch. It isn't my province; I wasn't born here; it doesn't feel mine. In fact I don't know anywhere that does, really. Brazil felt more mine than any other place I've ever been. I felt at home there. I wasn't at home, of course; it was a foreign country. Nevertheless there was something about the surrealism of Brazil that I found sympathetic. Brazilians are a crazy people, and I like crazy people. And the beauty! Oh God, the beauty could nourish you for days, weeks, months, years, a lifetime. Certainly when I was in Victoria before, I was productive and wrote perhaps some of my best poetry. "Stories of Snow" is probably one of my good poems and it was written here when I was in my twenties. I hate to say that because I like to think I am writing better now.

Interviewer: You're writing differently, now?

Respondent: Quite differently. At any rate, then, I wrote a great deal, but whether it was because I was in Victoria, or by the sea, I have no idea. Perhaps it was just that I was at the height of my creative energy. But I don't think place has much to do with it. I think it's state, or condition of mind or heart or imagination or. . ..

Interviewer: What do you think of Emily Carr as a painter, incidentally.

Respondent: Her earlier stuff, I'm not that mad about. It's heavy to me. I don't terribly like the dark forests of B.C. which she painted so wonderfully. But the late stuff! Those great expanses of rushing sky and the sense of movement, I adore. I think they're marvellous. There are moments of Colville too which are very heady for me. But I'm nervous in Colville's presence, very often. He almost always mutilates the human body, doesn't he? Not by cutting it but by obliterating it. What is he doing? Why won't he let you see that face?

Interviewer: It seems that he doesn't want us to be distracted by the particular. He wants to create the sense of mystery itself?

Respondent: He certainly achieves that, but for me there's something almost brutal in his obliteration of parts of the human body.

Interviewer: He seems to prefer animals. There is one of a man in black and his face is almost replaced by a dog's face.

Respondent: That happens over and over again. Remember the little boy holding a terrier? But what a mood he can create!

Interviewer: Sometimes when I see those paintings with the shadows missing and so on, I think that he may be trying to pull you through the particular and the concrete to another dimension.

Respondent: "I have been sucked through" — what I was writing about in "After Donne" — sucked through by the physical object itself — by the focussing glass.

Interviewer: Do you then lose the focussing glass, the concrete? Do you get beyond it entirely, or is it still there and important?

Respondent: While we're on this planet — and short of achieving direct perception — perhaps it's necessary. But how can I know? I'm a bit uneasy even speculating. For what is the concrete, after all? It is certainly not that impermeable mass of molecules I once imagined it to be. You've only to change the scale and the focussing glass dissolves and becomes airy as a night sky with infinite spaces through which one could be drawn. It's like the Necker Cube — first I see it one way, then the other. I sometimes think the new physics might give me an important breakthrough if I could only understand it. But without a scientific education, although I can be excited by it, I am not illuminated. My only hope lies in Sheldrake's much disputed "hypothesis of formative causation" in which he argues that if a rat, say, learns to carry out a new pattern of behaviour, the tendency is for all subsequent rats to learn it more easily, and the greater the number of rats to learn it, the greater the speed of learning of all rats anywhere. That is one hope. The other — direct perception itself.