PhD project profiles
On this page:
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, Linguistics and Applied Languages, Te Kawa a Māui / Māori Studies, Nursing, Midwifery and Health, the English and Theatre programmes of SEFTMS, and Va'aomanu Pasifika / Pacific 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.
Angela 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.'
Valerie is a writer of fiction, non-fiction and hybrid/interdisciplinary writing. She is originally from Massachusetts but lived in Seattle for several years before moving to New Zealand with her husband. Valerie earned her B.A. in Creative Writing from Dartmouth College (2008) and her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Washington (2012). In Seattle she taught literature and research writing at Green River College and creative writing and composition at the University of Washington. Her writing has appeared online or in print with Drunken Boat, The Seattle Review, Blunderbuss, Anomalous Press, Hunger Mountain, and Apt.
Valerie writes: 'My dissertation will include a creative and critical exploration of how narrative, memory, history/ancestry, fiction/autobiography, folklore, fairy tales, and photographs interact and intersect in hybrid/interdisciplinary literature.
'I will analyse the archival impulse, (the desire to utilize and make connections between photographs, drawings, letters, historical documents, other media/texts, etc.), in fiction and hybrid literatures. Art critic Hal Foster describes archival art "as found yet constructed, factual yet fictive, public yet private" (p. 5, "An Archival Impulse").
'I am also interested in the use of autobiographical material in contemporary fiction and how authors construct identities, (the self and/or fictionalized characters), in literature through blended multimedia narratives. Some interesting examples of interdisciplinary or hybrid literature that utilize photographs, images, or archives include work ranging from the surrealists to postmodern writers, such as books by Andre Breton and W.G. Sebald, Carole Maso, Blake Butler, Kathleen Hill, and Jonathan Safran Foer, to name a few. Critical and theoretical work by John Berger, Roland Barthes, Helene Cixous, Marianne Hirsch, and Jacques Derrida, may inform and provide lenses for my research.'
'Fragmentary Blue' (Drunken Boat)
'Sisters' (Blunderbuss Magazine)
'Possessions' (The Seattle Review)
'Here, There' (Anomalous Press)
'Remnants' Apt (Aforementioned Productions)
'Birds Have Eyes' (Hunger Mountain)
'To The Girl in The Tunnel' (Headland, Issue 7, August 2016)
Nikki-Lee Birdsey (commenced 2016)
Nikki-Lee holds an MFA in creative writing from the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a BA from New York University. Her work has been published most recently or is forthcoming in Fence, LIT, The Volta, Hazlitt, 3:AM Magazine, Hinchas de Poesia and others. She is also the author of the chapbook Free That Hooker (Aero Press, 2012). In summer 2015 she was a visiting faculty fellow at the IIML, teaching poetry. She is originally from Piha, New Zealand.
Nikki-Lee writes: 'For my creative thesis I intend to investigate my own responses to memory in the familiar and unfamiliar context of the New Zealand landscape in its natural, built, emotional and unexplored versions. I am not interested so much in a confessional autobiography of sorts, but rather how memory and its various contingencies affect the creative process. Initial formal concerns to be explored include an examination of doubling imagery as pertaining to doubling landscapes, instability of impression, simultaneous realities or "othered" places, as well as outsider and transnational perspectives. I aim to write a creative text consciously engaging a totality of experience: a text that reconstitutes itself by playing out all its possible parts and combinations, moving both backward and forward in time in the multiple contexts of the concurrent critical research.
'The writer Leslie Jamison, amongst others, has heralded these times as the age of memoir. The success of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle or the poet Ben Lerner's 10:04, which build a work of fiction out of the writer's life, echoes the impulse of documentation that is so salient and relevant to today's writing in whichever genre, be it poetry, fiction or literary nonfiction as it perhaps reflects (and distorts) the extraordinary documentation of our daily lives in media, technology and connectedness. For my critical research I am interested in the closeness of memoir (or the memoir-esque), autobiographical fiction and poetry today, as distinct from autobiography and confession, and why. What is the nature of the link between these separate genres? The frame of genre or style-bending in relation to encapsulating the content of today’s experience is also of interest here. I intend to engage in research that explores and blurs the line between the reality of lived experience, depicted or aestheticized experience, and the texts that are actively connected to it––much as memory blurs the line between the reality of a memory and that memory transfigured into art in the work of W.G. Sebald, Maggie Nelson and more.'
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 a six-part TV drama series. The critical side 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?'
Amy Leigh is a poet from New York City. She holds her MFA in poetry from The New School (2014) and her B.A. in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from the The King's College (2009). She is the author of Orange Juice and Rooftops (Eloquent Press, 2009) and a few chapbooks, and her poems have appeared on The Best American Poetry blog. She served as a poetry editor for NYSAI Literary Magazine and writing instructor before moving to Wellington with her husband to undertake her PhD at IIML.
Amy Leigh writes: 'In James K. Baxter (Oxford University Press, 1977), Vincent O'Sullivan wrote that Baxter's verse 'is the most complete delineation yet of a New Zealand mind. The poetic record of its shaping is as original an act as anything we have.' For the critical component of this dissertation I will focus on the life and work of James Keir Baxter as a national figure, or as he has been called, 'the people's prophet' of New Zealand. Placing Baxter's life in the context of New Zealand history, I will explore personal narrative, landscape, and expressions of national identity for Māori and Pakeha people in order to better understand what set him apart and continues to make him a household name and an international icon.
'The creative component will be a collection of poetry focused on landscape, personal narrative and national identity as an expatriate in New Zealand. Poetic forms will be employed to contrast the mystery and variables of landscape and culture. As the subject material becomes more familiar, the forms will vary to sustain the contrast. I might begin with a sestina if the first walk home from the library is full of wrong turns, strange birds, white clouds, and homesickness. Six months later when that walk has morphed into a familiar route, a free-form poem would allow intimate impulsive reflection on a few tui taking flight just as someone wearing my mother's perfume passes by me on Salamanca Road.
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 later studied English and creative writing at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, before obtaining his Master of Creative Writing in 2012 from the University of Auckland.
Allan's creative project is a novel fictionalising John Milton's life while he completed his epic poem 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 focuses on acts of characterisation in fictional narratives. The texts of interest are Paradise Lost, in which Milton performs his characterisations within the 'negative space' provided by the source biblical narrative, and Lucy Hutchinson's Order and Disorder, another long poem from the same period that also retells the narrative of Genesis. The thesis in particular investigates how the acts of characterisation affect and are affected by literary genre (epic poem and meditative verse paraphrase for the two poems, respectively). The character of Eve is given particular attention in the critical work; likewise, Eve serves as a motif and site of contention in the creative work, too.
Allan has published and presented his doctoral work-in-progress as his study has progressed. His flash fiction on Milton, 'The smell of it all', was published in Flash Frontiers in December 2015, and his literary essay reflecting on his research trip to Milton's Cottage in the UK is forthcoming in Overland (he also talked about this research trip on Radio New Zealand). Allan presented extracts of his research for three consecutive years at Waikato University's annual FASSGRAD conference, and published a related journal article in Te Kura Kete Aronui. He also presented papers at The Afterlives of Eve Conference in Newcastle, England in 2016 and The Stain of Blood: Poetry and History Conference held at Victoria University in 2015. Allan's invocation of Milton's 1644 polemic tract Areopagitica as it relates to current issues of censorship in literature was published in Overland in 2015. Beyond the work related to his PhD, Allan has published short fiction, creative non-fiction, academic non-fiction and poetry in a range of publications across New Zealand, Australia, the UK and the USA. Allan won the inaugural Ingenio Short Story Competition in 2012, and was shortlisted for the Bristol Short Story Prize in 2013.
A full list of his publications and awards is available on Allan Drew's website.
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.'
Helen'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.'
Helen Innes (commenced 2016)
Helen is a fiction writer and poet who usually lives in a house in Naenae, sometimes on a boat in Seaview, and hardly ever but with great enthusiasm in a yurt in Wainuiomata. She studied linguistics and psychology at Victoria, then taught English as a second language for 20 years in Ireland, England, Japan, China, and New Zealand. She has travelled through 30 countries, mostly by train, and is good at studying a new language in the carriage before crossing the border, and forgetting it completely on the journey out. She's interested in cross cultural communication and dialects; especially subtle differences between speakers of the same language.
She completed a novel ('Tatami Burns') for her MA at the IIML in 2012. She has published in Fishhead (2010), Turbine (2012), and Plate in the Mirror - Poetry Anthology (2016). She was runner up in the Eat your Words Café Poetry Competition (2010), and twice runner up in the Katherine Mansfield Short Story Awards (2008 & 2009).
Helen writes: 'The creative component of my thesis is a novel set in New Zealand suburbia in the near future. In it I will portray the dialects of local and foreign born New Zealanders, foreigners, and perhaps a few birds. I will bring my love of prose poetry, dialogue, and general subversion into my work. My writing focuses on a particular suburban community; its people, stories, varieties of language, landscape, flora and fauna. There are a few dairy cows wandering about the pages too.
'I will use socio-linguistics methodology in my critical component. I'm interested in how an author communicates with the reader, and how they portray dialects, accents, unclear speech, miscommunication, and even bird calls. I will experiment with different ways of representing standard English and local varieties of English on the page, and then test how these are perceived by readers. This will then influence how I represent speech in my novel. I will also test the covert prestige of a interrogative present in only a local variety of English.
My main displacement activity currently concerns researching the onomatopoeic and mnemonic representations of birdsong in literature and birding guides; reading about bird dialects; listening to the birds outside my office and trying to write down what they say.'
'Jellyfish' - Turbine12
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 which enabled her 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 examine the role of ekphrasis in Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson's writing. Ekphrasis—a genre of poetry commonly described as the "verbal representation of visual representation" — appears repeatedly throughout Carson's work, and I hope to demonstrate, via several key examples, how this form encapsulates not just Carson's fascination with the visual but how it is the ideal model to explain Carson's own methodology as a writer, scholar, and translator.
The creative component of my thesis will be a collection of poetry that includes both ekphrasis and "mock" translations of French symbolist poet, Stephane Mallarmé.'
Monica holds an MFA in Writing from the University of Texas at Austin, where she was a James A. Michener Fellow. She was born and raised in the Philippines, spent her early childhood in Delaware, USA, and earned her Bachelor's degree in Creative Writing, magna cum laude, from the University of the Philippines in 2007. Her fiction, non-fiction, and poetry have appeared in The Masters Review, The Fictioneer, Five Quarterly, Your Impossible Voice, Impact: An Anthology of Short Memoirs, and TAYO Literary Magazine, among others. Her short story, 'Stopover', earned an Honorable Mention in Glimmer Train's Fiction Open and was featured in the University of Pittsburgh Writing Program's Longform Fiction Her essay 'Becoming a writer - the silences we write against' (Tayo online edition, 2015) was selected as a 'notable essay' in the Best American Essays of 2016, edited by Johnathan Franzen . Her work has been recognised with residency fellowships from Hedgebrook in Washington State and The Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska.
Monica writes: 'My novel is tentatively titled The People We Trust, and examines the lives of three young people who come of age during the early years of the Marcos dictatorship.
In my accompanying critical study, I will discuss novels about the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. I will refer to fiction written about the Marcos dictatorship as "Martial Law Fiction", a term coined by Gerald T. Burns in his 1994 essay, "Philippine Martial Law Fiction: Phases in the Early Evolution of the Genre", to describe what he calls a genre of historical fiction written specifically about the Marcos years. For purposes of clarity, it is worth mentioning that "Martial Law" is a term used by journalists and scholars alike in the Philippines to refer to the Marcos years.
The Martial Law novel is part of a larger tradition of historical novel writing in the Philippines. In these novels, the interrogation of nationhood and identity is mediated through fictional characters who become actively involved in their nation's politics after realising that their private lives cannot be completely divorced from the life of their nation. In the Philippines, nationalism is predicated upon a consciousness of the nation's history, and these novels perform the dual function of inculcating and interrogating nationhood. The fact that these novels occupy opposing roles as vehicles and interrogators of nationhood goes to show how contentious the idea of national identity is in the Philippines. It is an idea that needs continuous reinforcement among its citizens in order to become acknowledged truth, and it also needs to be continuously interrogated in light of historical events that challenge its legitimacy.'
'Stopover' (Five Quarterly)
Excerpt from 'Stopover' (Longform Fiction)
'The Day I Was a Comfort Woman' (Your Impossible Voice - audio recording)
'The Cup of Knowing' (Quarterly Literary Review Singapore)
The Masters Review 2012 , ed. Lauren Groff: 'The Feast of All Souls'
The Fictioneer : 'Maricel'
Impact: An Anthology of Short Memoirs : 'James'
Essay in TAYO Literary Magazine, online edition, 31 May 2015: 'Becoming a writer - the silences we write against' ('Notable essay': Best American Essays of 2016, ed. Jonathan Franzen)
'Love and other rituals' (Thin Noon)
'Into Lightness' (Shirley Magazine)
'Playing with Dolls' (available as e-book on Kindle - originally published in Day One literary journal)
To Be Free by Edilberto K. Tiempo reviewed by Monica Macansantos (Halo Halo, 1 August 2016)
'Leaving Auckland' finalist, Glimmer Train Fiction Open, 2016
Alison has a Bachelor of Arts in english and film from University of Auckland, a BA (hons) from Victoria University, and a Masters in Creative Writing from the IIML. She was awarded the David Carson-Parker Embassy Prize in 2013 for her MA script – a television drama titled The Staceys.
Alison writes: 'For my project I will be looking at the relationship between chaos theory and TV narratives.
Chaos theory is the study of non-linear dynamics, which examines the idea that hidden within the unpredictability of chaotic systems are deep structures of order, and that hidden within structures of order are random and unpredictable systems. Complex systems often rely upon an underlying order and, in turn, very simple or small systems can be the cause of complex behaviours or events.
'I see parallels between chaos theory and TV narratives, in that a television series as a whole can be seen as a single and cohesive structure or frame that contains progressively smaller frames and structures – seasons, episodes, acts, and multiple plot-lines and character arcs that interweave, collide, and sometimes never meet or even end – all of which are then "reassembled" through the process of reception and interpretation.
'For my creative component I will be writing three separate TV series, each adhering to a central idea in chaos theory that the sensitive dependence of initial conditions are an inescapable consequence of the way small scales intertwine with large.  In each project I will place the "initial condition" at different points in the narratives so as to explore and emphasise the multitude of story-telling possibilities in television.'
 Gleick, J. Chaos: The Amazing Science of the Unpredictable. London: Vintage, 1998
Mikaela Nyman (commenced 2016)
Mikaela's short fiction, creative non-fiction and poems have appeared in Sport, Turbine, Minarets, Blackmail Press, JAAM, 4th Floor, Lumiére Arts Reader and the Air Vanuatu inflight magazine. In 2011 she completed an MA in Creative Writing at Victoria University's IIML, followed by an opportunity to live and work in Vanuatu for four years.
She hails from the autonomous Åland islands in Finland and has a background in journalism, African and Asian studies, international relations and development. She spent some years working in Zimbabwe in the late 1990s on workers' education and human rights during a volatile time in Zimbabwe's history. Her MA research (University of Southern Queensland) on civil society and democratisation in Indonesia in the post-Suharto era was published by the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in 2006 and by Routledge in 2008.
Mikaela writes: 'I'm interested in questions around culture, identity and migration; how displacement and life experiences influence the behaviour of individuals and communities, particularly in relation to women's empowerment. I'm interested in how new language is shaped in the collision between foreign and indigenous, and what's lost in translation and between generations. And there is always the question what I, as an outsider (as in "non-indigenous"), am allowed to write about and how.
'I'm excited to get this opportunity to explore the hybrid nature of critical and creative writing in the Pacific, following in the footsteps of Albert Wendt, Sia Figiel, Epeli Hau'ofa and others. For my research project I want to focus on how women in Vanuatu have managed to make their voices heard and exert influence in the public sphere. Women's writing is largely invisible in Vanuatu due to a strong oral and male-dominated culture, in addition to widespread illiteracy among the older generation. I would like to contribute to raising the visibility of Melanesian women in the literary world, shedding new light on the wealth of creative expression and storytelling that exists. For my creative project I intend to write a novel along the same lines, from the perspective of an outsider looking in, set in New Zealand and in Vanuatu.'
'Softboned' (from Papertown) - Turbine 11
'Kava i kik' - Turbine 14
'Fado for Gran' - Sport 40
'As I See It' - Minarets Issue 5 (Spring 2013)
'Perfecting the art of throwing yourself at the ground and missing it' - UK Travel writing competition winner 2014
JAAM 28 - 'The Obituary' (not available online)
'Steeldrum Shelter' - Blackmail Press 25
Lena Tichy (commenced 2016)
Lena studied philosophy and English literature at the University of Berne, Switzerland, and then went to Ireland to study at the School of Social Justice at University College Dublin, where she earned an MSc. In Equality Studies in 2012. Between 2005 and 2015, she has worked as an editor and writer for various Swiss newspapers (print and online), while also writing nonfiction and fiction on the side. She has published her writing on the 100days project website in 2013 and 2014 and was part of the 100days exhibition at the Nathan Club in Auckland in 2013.
Lena writes: 'The creative part of my PhD will be a historical novel set in Switzerland at the end of the Second World War. The main focus of my book is a series of secret negotiations called "Operation Sunrise" that eventually led to the surrender of German troops in Northern Italy in May 1945. I'm especially interested in the figure of Allen Dulles (1893 – 1969), a U.S. diplomat and intelligence officer who would later become the first civilian director of the CIA.
'Most of the characters in my book are male and most of them also have privileges of race and class. Some of the characters, however, could also be described as queer. For my critical dissertation I want to study a number of contemporary gay writers who have in some way queered their male (seemingly straight) characters. My question is how privileged bodies can be queered in fiction, and how desire can be used as a queering factor in such narratives. Examples include Adam Haslett and his novel Union Atlantic, Marlon James' novel A Brief History of Seven Killings as well as Garth Greenwell's recent book What Belongs to You. In my analysis of these novels I will be using sociological theory on masculinity as well as queer theory.'