International Institute of Modern Letters

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The International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML) launched New Zealand's first PhD creative writing programme in 2008.

The writers who have joined the programme are working on a wide range of topics, and their supervisors come from an equally wide range of academic departments. While primary supervisors are usually staff from the IIML, co/secondary supervisors have come from Schools as diverse as Architecture, Art History, Gender and Women's Studies, the Graduate School of Nursing, Midwifery and Health, the English and Theatre programmes of SEFTMS, and Te Kawa a Māui / Māori Studies.

Regular group meetings provide a forum for PhD students (and their supervisors) to discuss their work in progress and take turns to present aspects of it in an informal and supportive atmosphere.

The descriptions below reflect the students' thinking at the time they contributed. However, we attempt to update these from time to time, to reflect the progress of each project.

You can read about previous students' projects on our PhD Graduates page. You can also read about some of our MA graduates on our MA Graduate Showcase page.

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Angela Andrews (commenced 2011)

Angela Andrews is investigating the relationship between medicine and poetry. Having previously trained as a doctor, she graduated with an MA from the IIML in 2005. Her first book, Echolocation, was published by Victoria University Press in 2007. Her poems have appeared in Best New Zealand Poems, Sport and Landfall.

Angela's project examines the clinical encounter—the meeting between doctor and patient—through a hybrid thesis combining the forms of poetry and essays. Her poems approach the clinical encounter from the perspectives of a patient, family member, medical student, and doctor. The essays situate the poems within the broader academic literature concerning the philosophy of the clinical encounter.

The discipline known as 'medical humanities' has undergone considerable growth over the last few decades. Humanities subjects have been incorporated into undergraduate medical curricula of many universities, including the two medical schools in New Zealand. Worldwide, there is substantial interest in what poetry might offer the practice of medicine. By using poems as a constituent part of the thesis, Angela aims to explore poetry itself as a mode of thinking, considering the ways in which such an approach can deepen our understanding of medicine.

Angela writes: 'I started my MA pretty much straight from a clinical job in the hospital. It was a vastly different way of seeing the world, compared to what I'd learnt at medical school. Ever since then, I've been thinking about the contrast, and complementarity, of the two schools I've attended at university. I'm interested in how that relationship might be relevant to medical practice.' 

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Airini Beautrais (commenced 2013)

Airini is the author of three collections of poetry;Secret Heart (2006)Western Line (2011), and Dear Neil Roberts (2014), all published by Victoria University Press. Secret Heart won the NZSA Jessie Mackay award for best first book of poetry at the 2007 New Zealand Book Awards. Airini's poetry and short fiction has appeared in a range of print and online journals.

The book-length poem, Dear Neil Roberts, takes the form of a personal address to a young punk anarchist who deliberately blew himself up outside the Whanganui Police Computer centre in 1982. It is also an exploration of local histories and the ways in which they can be remembered, told, and connected with.

The experience of writing this poem led Airini to consider the challenges involved in the form of the long poem, including the structuring of a narrative, the uses of verse forms, and the ways in which historical and/or political material can be presented. Airini's PhD project has been designed with the further exploration of these issues in mind.

The critical component focuses on the contemporary long poem in New Zealand and Australia. Case studies of book-length poems by six writers working during the last 25 years explore the question: what possibilities are offered by verse form, that distinguish poetry from other narrative media? Specifically, this thesis will consider how segmentive aspects of verse form, including sections within a book, poems within a sequence, line breaks, stanzas, and meter, affect the narrativity of a text, and the narrative(s) therein. The notion of segmentivity as poetry's characterising feature was developed by Rachel Blau du Plessis in her 1995 essay 'Manifests'.

Airini's creative project is a series of long poems drawing on histories of the Whanganui river region, with a focus on social and environmental issues. The poems will bear in mind a human geography, considering the complexities of interactions with the natural environment, and the effects of economic processes on individual lives.

Relevant links:
Victoria University Press author page

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Peter Cox (commenced 2014)

Peter completed his MA in 2002 at the IIML with his TV series project The Insider's Guide to Happiness, which went on to be produced by Gibson Group and screened on TV2, picking up six awards at the New Zealand Film and Television Awards, including best drama series.  Since then, the TV series' Peter has created and/or developed have won more than 30 NZ Film and TV awards, and have been distributed in Australia, Canada, the UK, Asia and Europe, with format rights being sold in countries as diverse as Russia and the US. He has also been the recipient of the Buddle-Findlay Sargeson Writer's Fellowship, and won best new NZ Playwright at the Wellington Chapman Tripp theatre awards.

Peter writes: 'the creative side of my PHD focuses on two different television series ideas: one is somewhat of a drama; one is somewhat of a comedy. The critical side of my PHD focuses on the function of television 'writer's rooms' – particularly in light of the increasingly popular 'auteur' view of the US 'quality cable' TV series creator/showrunner. How have the conditions of 'niche' cable television programming given rise to the concept of the showrunner/auteur? How does this new auteur theory of television authorship mesh with the necessarily collaborative nature of TV serial writing? How does the practical 'on the ground' functioning of writer's rooms reflect the authorship of the creator/showrunner?

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Allan Drew (commenced 2014)

Allan originally studied science, obtaining his undergraduate degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. He subsequently worked in medical research and later in medical publishing. Allan changed direction in 2006, and studied English and creative writing at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, before obtaining his Master of Creative Writing in 2012 from the University of Auckland. His poems and short stories have been published in Poetry NZ, Ingenio, Hue & Cry, Takahe, Bravado, REM Magazine, Blackmail Press, and JAAM. Allan won the inaugural Ingenio Short Story Competition in 2012, and was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2013.

Allan's creative project aims to fictionalise John Milton's life after the Restoration in 17th Century England, during which time Milton completed and published Paradise Lost. This proposal was originally inspired by a love for Milton's epic and a desire to understand how such a work can be written. Allan has also become interested in determining the ability of fiction to help us understand and interpret genius – using Milton as a model for genius.

Allan's critical work will focus on Milton's characterisations in Paradise Lost, and how the characterisations were performed from within the 'negative space' provided by the original biblical narrative. Lucy Hutchinson's Order and Disorder, another long poem from the same period that retells the narrative of Genesis, will serve as a comparison text. Particular attention will be given to the application of speech-act theory and the concept of performative utterances to the process and outcomes of characterisation in the two poems.

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Kate Duignan (commenced 2013)

Kate is a novelist and short story writer based in Aro Valley.  After completing the MA in Creative Writing in 2000, her novel Breakwater (2001) was published by Victoria University Press.  She has published in Landfall and Sport, and been anthologised in The Penguin Book of Contemporary New Zealand Short Stories (2009) and the Anthology of New Zealand Literature (2012).  Kate held the Robert Burns Fellowship at Otago University in 2004.  She taught short fiction workshops at the IIML from 2010-2013 and continues to supervise for the MA programme while working on her PhD. 

Kate writes: 'My creative project is a novel narrated in the first person.  My critical project takes this narrative mode as a starting point.  I want to research contemporary novels which have a single first-person narration, particularly novels where the reader is locked inside the subjectivity and language of the protaganist-narrator as he or she wanders through the geography and time of the novel.  W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz and Vertigo, Richard Ford's Frank Bascombe trilogy and Teju Cole's Open City are influential works (although these are not the ones I propose to study).  I'm interested in the history of the wandering first-person narrator in the novel, particularly when that narrator is figured as romantic wanderer, urban flaneur, pilgrim or tourist.  I'm interested in the identifications the reader may be invited to make between author and character in novels where a first-person narrator with characteristics close to the author is deployed.  I'm particularly interested in novels by women which use a first person male protaganist-narrator.  I want to investigate what effects such novelists are trying to achieve by using this narrative strategy.'

Relevant links:

Victoria University Press author page

New Zealand Book Council writer file

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Gigi Fenster (commenced 2013)

Gigi Fenster’s first novel, The Intentions Book, was published by Victoria University Press in 2012 and shortlisted in the Fiction categorgy of the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Awards. She has published short stories in various literary journals, both in New Zealand and abroad. She has a masters in creative writing from Victoria University and various law degrees. She was the 2012 recipient of the Todd New Writers' Bursary.

Gigi writes: 'In my PhD, I am exploring the theme of fever, as it is portrayed in literature and viewed by writers. In particular I am interested in exploring works which were inspired by, or which describe, feverish dreams. My thesis will be a work of creative non-fiction which explores the implications of somebody wanting to induce a fever in themselves for creative ends. Creative and non-fiction elements will be used to interrogate the concerns which inducing a fever for creative ends might bring to the fore. What legal, ethical, medical, economic and philosophical issues might the self inducing of a fever raise? Are these issues different when the fever is being induced for creative reasons to when it is induced for medical or scientific research?' 

Relevant links:

Victoria University Press author page

The Intentions Book: NZ Herald review

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Helen Heath (commenced 2012)

Helen Heath's debut collection of poetry Graft was published in 2012 by Victoria University Press. In 2013 it won the NZSA Jessie Mackay Best First Book of Poetry in the New Zealand Post Book Awards, and was the first book of fiction or poetry to be shortlisted for the Royal Society of NZ Science Book Prize.

Her poetry and essays have been published in many journals in New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the USA. She won the inaugural ScienceTeller Poetry Award in 2011 for her poem ‘Making Tea in the Universe’. Her chapbook of poems Watching for Smoke was published by Seraph Press in 2009; the same year she completed an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria. She has been known to blog sporadically.

Helen's research project explores how science is represented in the work of post-war, contemporary poets writing in the 80s and 90s. 

Helen writes: 'The domestication of technology has helped scientific concepts, imagery and vocabulary become part of our daily lives. Few people can explain the workings of a smart phone or computer, but these technologies are increasingly part of our everyday lives. In fact I would go so far as to say that we are all cyborgs now, in that we have incorporated technology not only into our lives but into our bodies. From hip replacements and pacemakers to computers as prosthetics, even plastic surgery and spectacles – we augment ourselves and merge with technology. This merging of humans with technology is the direction I am taking the creative component of my dissertation. I am writing a collection of poetry. I intend to write lyric poems although I am aiming to find some new forms for my work, possibly, in some instances, digital.'

Relevant Links:

Victoria University Press author page

Read some of Helen’s work online:

Turbine 11

4th Floor 12

Interlitq 16


4th Floor 11

Turbine 10

Turbine 09

Turbine 05

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Therese Lloyd (commenced 2013)

Therese's  poems have appeared in print and online publications including Sport, Landfall, Hue & Cry, Jacket2, Metro, Turbine, and the AUP series New Zealand Poets in Performance, .

In 2006 she completed the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria's IIML, and was awarded the Schaeffer Fellowship to spend a year attending the acclaimed Iowa Writer's Workshop.

Her first full-length book of poetry, Other Animals, was published by Victoria University Press in 2013.

Therese writes: 'The aim of the critical component of my thesis is to direct a channel of enquiry into how and where the genre of poetry known as ekphrasis—the verbal representation of visual representation—is being written about the branch of contemporary art called "new media". New media art, a form dating back to the photographic inventions of the late 19th century, includes time-based elements such as video, film, or computer-based technologies.

Since Homer’s description of Achilles' shield in The Iliad, ekphrasis has been a dynamic and enduring mode of poetic description. The ekphrastic poems that we are most familiar with (Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn"; Auden's "Musée des Beaux Arts"; Ashbery's "Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror") all address a painting or sculpture. Often the poet first encountered the work in a museum setting, viewing the artworks at his or her leisure, with the knowledge that they could return to view the work at a later date. I'm interested in the ekphrastic exchange between the poet and the ephemeral work of art: a work that is concept driven rather than representational, and a work that may or may not (depending on the longevity of its technical components) be returned to for subsequent viewings.

Taking the premise that there is not a great deal of poetry about new media art, in comparison to the wealth of poetry about painting for example, my research will initially focus on the ekphrastic poems of Canadian poet Anne Carson. By unpacking the rhetorical and poetic techniques Carson employs in her ekphrasis, I hope to gain a foothold into how to write my own poems about new media art.'

Relevant links:

Victoria University Press author page

Read about Therese's experience of the MA in Creative Writing

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Sue Orr (commenced 2013)

Sue Orr has published two short story collections – Etiquette for a Dinner Party (Vintage, 2008) and From Under the Overcoat (Vintage, 2011). From Under the Overcoat was shortlisted for the NZ Post Book Awards 2012, and won the People’s Choice Award. Her work has also been published in the NZ Listener, Sport, in various anthologies and has been broadcast on Radio New Zealand National. Sue also occasionally teaches creative writing at Manukau Institute of Technology in Auckland. In 2011 she was a Buddle Findlay Sargeson Fellow.

Sue’s creative component is a novel set in rural New Zealand in the 1970s. It has a working title of The Party Line, referring to the shared telephone lines of that era. Her research component will examine eavesdropping and voyeurism in New Zealand writing, with particular reference to the work of Maurice Gee and one or two other authors.

New Zealand Book Council writer file

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Anna Sanderson (commenced 2012)

Anna has a Bachelor of Arts in photography, and a Bachelor of Arts in English and Art History from Auckland University. She has been writing since 1994 when she co-founded Monica, a magazine of art criticism with a focus on the in-depth review. Since then she has authored many companion texts for the work of visual artists. From 1998 she lived and worked in Melbourne, Rotterdam and New York. She returned to New Zealand in 2004 and completed the MA in Creative Writing at Victoria the following year.

In 2006 Victoria University Press published her collection of essays, Brainpark and won the Landfall Essay competition for her essay Dr Yang. In November 2007 Anna was shortlisted for the 2008 Prize in Modern Letters, designed to acknowledge and advance the work of emerging writers in New Zealand. In the same year she was a recipient of the Arts Foundation's New Generation Award.

Anna writes: 'Below are some excerpts from the Research Proposal for the doctoral project, which has the working title: Material and immaterial: The economy in written images.

'The work is a single work of creative non-fiction, combining the required "creative" and "critical" components of the PhD in creative writing. The "critical-creative" hybrid is a natural form for this project, given that the genre of creative non-fiction is by definition both critical and creative in that it seeks to represent the "real world", using the techniques of fiction. The project is deliberately interdisciplinary and resists genre classification, combining a diaristic form of narration with a contemplation of objects, images, and spaces as well as interview material.

'This book-length study aims to tell a story about the economy. The belief that propels the project is that an imaginative engagement with the economy is a necessary complement to an analytical one. The aim of
the project is to grasp (at) an unobtainable aspect of economics, and at the same time to record the process of the attempt at grasping.
If the economy has no obvious or constant form, "I", who now becomes "the narrator" makes a consciously naïve formulation. Might the closest thing to its tangible existence be in the institutions that house its conceptualisation? In the Reserve and commercial banks, for example, or the Treasury, the stock exchange? "She" will, then, seek them there, and document this necessarily awkward pilgrimage. The institutional settings of economics are a primary focal point because they are a jumble of structures in which the primary material being exchanged is abstract or theoretical but they themselves are tangible and populated. They are material structures, porous with immateriality. The task is, to see if the curious wholeness of the combination can be represented.

Constituent parts
'The study will utilise three modes of research: a physical encounter with some of the physical and virtual spaces in Wellington at the engine end of the economic apparatus, a series of interviews with relevant individuals (eg. economists, market specialists and journalists concerned with economics), and thirdly, a programme of background reading (literary, academic and popular) which acts as a behind-the-scenes propellant.
Each of the modes of research (wandering, interviewing, reading) aims to move towards partially revealed tensions the narrator senses within the idea of the economy. Her identification of seams of tension through the subject matter directs the narrative movement.

Some models
'The approach to this abstract societal notion "the economy" is an echo of playwright David Hare's book Asking Around (1993), which was the background research to his trilogy of plays concerning the crises facing the Church, the Law, and the Labour Party in Britain. In it he made a sketch of three institutions (political, religious and law and order) by spending periods of time in each, observing, interacting and interviewing.
Hare's process of making visits to the physical environments of a group of society-shaping agencies and producing written sketches, is a relevant model for this project. As is his supplementing these observations with interviews. Unlike Hare though, who used his real world encounters as a research tool for crafting plays, and only published them later (and they feel like notes) I would like to remain in the research space as an end in itself, and develop a piece from within it. Staying in the research space, as mentioned at the beginning, means that the research material will also remain perhaps choppy, like hoed earth, not pursuing a completely unified flow. This is because I think there is value in the relationship between the edges of the pieces, and because the basic stance and way forward (as in the tradition of the Christian mystics) is unknowing.
The nature of the project is overtly aesthetic and only implicitly political. The work aims to represent the economy in terms which tend to be outside of its nature. The immersive, experiential emphasis of the writing may have more in common with Walter Benjamin, who in his Arcades Project stitches thought to place, and meaning emerges out of the arrangement of reflection in relation to geography.
A question that I seek to keep uppermost throughout, is: can image (for the purposes of this thesis, image is understood as the broadest range of the affects of creative non-fiction ie. scene, moment, any object constructed in written form as a rendering for consideration) be a way to hold a paradox (the economy as at once graspable and ungraspable) together in the same space for view/consideration?

'This quote from James Hillman on images in psychoanalysis has some bearing on method: "For instance, a black snake comes into a dream, a great big black snake, and you can spend a whole hour talking about the devouring mother, talking about the anxiety […] all those interpretative moves that people make, […] what is vitally important, is what the snake is doing, this crawling huge black snake that's walking into your life...the moment you've defined the snake, interpreted it, you've lost the snake […] and the person leaves the hour with a concept about my repressed sexuality or my cold black passion, or my mother or whatever it is […]. The task of analysis is to keep the snake there..." (Hillman and Moore 74)
Hillman and Susan Sontag provide, if not a complete blueprint, a certain kind of "family" in method. Hillman takes the notion of the "mundus imaginalis" as a basis for his position on psychoanalysis, which jettisons "improvement" from its aims, and proposes rather that it "stick with the image": Susan Sontag's essay Against Interpretation prescribes a similar thing for art criticism. In combination they provide basis for my approach, which is to let images speak without explicit interpretation from the narrator.
Another methodological principle in the work as a whole is to follow what doesn't settle. Anne Carson speaks of this in her note on method for Economy of the unlost when she says to keep attention strong you have to keep it from settling: "Partly for this reason I have chosen to talk about two men at once. They keep each other from settling. Moving and settling, they are side by side in a conversation and yet no conversation takes place. Face to face, yet they do not know one another, they do not live in the same era, never spoke the same language. With and against, aligned and adverse, each is placed like the surface on which the other may come into focus. Sometimes you can see a celestial object better by looking at something else with it, in the sky." (Carson (viii))

'A notion floats around, often mentioned almost flippantly, a religious analogy, with the economy as a kind of deity and economists as a priesthood. According to Donald Horne, for example: "Real people, as manifest in 'society,' have been melted down into an abstraction called 'The Economy' which we all serve, as if it rises above us. No-one any longer seems to be able to speak a human language of economic change; instead politicians recite the latest figures as if they were magic charms" (Bennett et al. 95)
I am not concerned to prove or disprove this analogy, however, I am curious to know what the result would be for an imaginative work, if the narrator acted "as if" this were the case. So here, then, the narrator will act as if economists are a kind of priesthood, not in a hammy way, but, according them this status to some degree. Her attitude is that in this role, economists should expect visits from people who wish to gain understanding and guidance. To be directed in thought by them. This is not explicitly addressed in the interview setting, but it does form some of the tone of the narrative voice. "There is some sense that I am inside something" she thinks, "What am I in?"
She (the narrator) is, of course, a construct for the purposes of this research question. She is in a sense one aspect of someone, enlarged. There are parts of her life which will not be available to the reader, or are only touched on in passing. The relationship of writer to narrator brings to mind Janet Malcom's comment on her own writing persona: "The narrator of my non-fiction pieces is not the same person I am - she is a lot more articulate and thinks of much cleverer things to say than I usually do. I can imagine her coming across as a little insufferable sometimes. But she, too, is out of my hands - I may have invented her, but she, too, is the person who insists on speaking for me." (The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers, 2005)'

Works cited
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, Mass.; London: Harvard University Press, 2002.
Bennett, Tony, Lawrence Grossberg, Meaghan Morris, and Raymond Williams. New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2005.
Carson, Anne. Economy of the Unlost: Reading Simonides of Keos with Paul Celan. Princeton, N.J.; Chichester: Princeton University Press, 2002.
Hare, David. Asking around: Background to the David Hare Trilogy. London: Faber and Faber in association with Royal National Theatre, 1993.
Hillman, James, and Thomas Moore. The Essential James Hillman: A Blue Fire. London: Routledge, 1990.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation, and Other Essays. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux, 1986.
The Believer Book of Writers Talking to Writers. San Francisco, CA: Believer Books, 2005.

Relevant links:

Victoria University Press author page

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Steven Toussaint (commenced 2012)

Originally from Chicago, Steven Toussaint came to New Zealand after graduating from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2010.  His poems and other writing have appeared in numerous publications, including Court Green, The Cultural Society, Hue & Cry, Jacket2, SET, TYPO, and Web Conjunctions. He is also a regular contributor to the website Occasional Religion, an interdisciplinary forum for contemporary religious discourse. He operates a personal blog at to-forge-the-eye-is-a-mountain-in-the-empyrean.

Steven writes: 'The sense of (or sensibility for) music in poetry is both my fascination and my task. A literary artifact has no literal volume or pitch. But a poem need not be spoken, sung, or performed to have musicality: a poem’s sonic properties haunt the page, silently.

'Ezra Pound refers to this phenomenon as melopoeia, "wherein the words are charged, over and above their plain meaning, with some musical property, which directs the bearing or trend of that meaning." The central aim of my Ph.D. thesis is to explore how Pound’s dictum has been interpreted and internalized by succeeding generations of poets. Specifically, I hope to discover how structures in musical compositions have informed and continue to inform modern poetic practice. My particular interest lies with those poets who seek out musical exempla in order to revitalize poetic form, those whose experimentation leads them deep into the acoustic materiality of language. Approaching both individual poems and musical compositions from a broadly formalist perspective, I hope to analyze their respective periodic forms and structures in order to discover where and how musico-poetic convergence might be possible.

'One supporting assumption of my critical dissertation is that it is a practical study; that is, its findings, whatever the result, should be useful to practicing poets. After illustrating potential connections between compositional practices in the two art forms, I hope to perform my own melopoetic experiments. I am especially excited about the formal possibilities present in both medieval sacred music and contemporary minimalist and drone music, in which subtle variations in repetition and duration can produce such a wide range of effects, from continuity, ecstasy and meditation, to dislocation and doom.'

Links to Steven’s writing online:

The Cultural Society



Web Conjunctions

SET (pdf 30MB .pdf document)