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Sandra Djwa's bio on poet P.K. Page on short list for Charles Taylor Prize

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TORONTO - The late poet and artist P.K. Page didn't want anyone to write her biography. But she changed her mind in December 1996, when her author-friend Sandra Djwa agreed to tell the story.

"People generally don't really think about mortality until they get into their 80s, and P.K. was 80, she had just published her collected poems, she was gathering together her fiction," the Vancouver-based Djwa recalled in a telephone interview.

"I think she had thoughts of mortality and so she was more willing to entertain the thought of a biography, even though she is such a very private person."

It seems the decision was worth it.

On Wednesday, Djwa's book "Journey with No Maps: A Life of P.K. Page" (McGill-Queen's University Press) was heralded as a "compelling and necessary biography" as it made the short list for the $25,000 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction.

The other four finalists include "Warlords: Borden, Mackenzie King, and Canada's World Wars" (Allen Lane) by Ottawa historian Tim Cook, who won the Charles Taylor prize in 2009 for "Shock Troops."

Also on this year's short list is Saskatchewan-born Ross King for "Leonardo and The Last Supper" (Bond Street Books), which won a Governor General's Literary Award in November.

Ontario native Andrew Preston is a contender for "Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy" (Knopf Canada).

And Carol Bishop-Gwyn of Toronto is a finalist for "The Pursuit of Perfection: A Life of Celia Franca" (Cormorant Books), about the late founder of the National Ballet of Canada.

Djwa's book — the first full-length biography of Page — is the result of a friendship that began in April 1970. That's when Page (her first initials stand for Patricia Kathleen) gave her first public poetry reading ever to Djwa's poetry class at Simon Fraser University, where Djwa is professor emeritus of English.

Over the ensuing years, they visited each other in their respective cities (Djwa in Vancouver, Page in Victoria).

"She was a real pioneer, one of our first true moderns and such a fine poet," Djwa, 73, said Wednesday from a hotel room just before doing a guest lecture at the University of Victoria.

Born in 1916 in England, Page and her family moved to Canada three years later and she eventually taught herself poetry before writing plays and other literature, and creating visual art. As Djwa puts it, Page "spent all of her life wanting to know more."

"I think the greatest impact of writing the biography was simply I began to recognize just how difficult it was even for an extraordinarily talented young woman to find her way in the world of letters," said Djwa.

"A young woman of Page's family was expected to contract a good marriage, and what she did was try to teach herself to write poetry. It was a remarkable struggle and she had military discipline. She worked at it and she had an extraordinary influence on the next group of writers that followed."

A big source of Page's inspiration was her Aunt Bibbi, who studied in the 1890s under Bertrand Russell but could not obtain a degree because women weren't allowed to do so at the time.

"When P.K. went to London to stay with her aunt, her aunt immediately did everything she could to give her bright niece every advantage, the advantages she could not have," said Djwa.

"So really, what you're seeing is two generations of women in the same family probably with similar intelligences but the younger woman had the opportunity to practise her art."

Djwa had access to Page's diaries and letters as she write the biography for over a decade. She also journeyed to parts of Canada, Brazil, Mexico and England to speak with Page's friends, family members and colleagues.

Among those who told Djwa of their relationship with Page was the late broadcaster and Senator Florence Bird, authors Margaret Atwood and Alice Munro, filmmaker Atom Egoyan, and late poet F.R. Scott.

Scott and Page had an affair that "was so important to her life and poetry, and indeed it was important to his life and poetry," said Djwa, who has also published a biography on Scott.

Sufism — a mystical branch of Islam — was also a big part of Page's later life, and Djwa touches on it in the biography.

"I think as a friend, I had not fully recognized the degree to which Sufism was important to her later life and the degree to which it underlay her later writings," said Djwa, whose other books include "Professing English: A Life of Roy Daniells."

"It was only when I began looking at her poetry and prose writing as a biographer that I began to see that I had accepted the externals without thinking very much about the inner direction of the woman."

This year's Charles Taylor Prize finalists were chosen from a field of 129 books submitted by 43 publishers from around the world.

The winner — decided by jurors Susanne Boyce, Richard Gwyn and Joseph Kertes — will be announced on March 4 in Toronto.

Last year's winner was Toronto author Andrew Westoll for "The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary: A Canadian Story of Resilience and Recovery."

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