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Source: Massey University

Some of the creative writers and lecturers currently teaching in Massey’s creative writing programme (from top left, clockwise) Professor Bryan Walpert, Associate Professor Ingrid Horrocks, Dr Jack Ross, Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley, Dr Thom Conroy and Dr Laura Jean McKay.

Since a new course, simply called Creative Writing, first drew hundreds of eager poets and fiction writers in 2001, Massey University’s creative writing programme has grown to offer a wide range of courses for undergraduate and post-graduate students. To date, thousands have participated in the programme’s 20-year history.

To simultaneously mark the 20th anniversary of the programme’s foundational course, and the 10-year anniversary of the Master’s in Creative Writing, current and former staff and students will be celebrating on 21 May at the Palmerston North City Library.

“It’s been an incredible journey to this point,” said Professor Bryan Walpert, who joined Massey in 2004 and currently coordinates the undergraduate Creative Writing programme within the School of Humanities, Media and Creative Communication. 

“It’s been a real privilege to see so many students explore their interest in writing and go on to publish quite successfully,” he adds.

According to Professor Walpert the programme can be traced back in part to the decision in the 1980s and 1990s to add the teaching of professional and expository writing to the English curriculum. One example was a course taught by Robert Neale, MNZM, which included a creative component in addition to expository assignments. Other initiatives that laid the groundwork for the creative writing programme included a Media Script Writing course first offered in 1997 by Craig Harrison. Theatre specialist and playwright Professor Angie Farrow’s efforts, starting in the late 1990s, added creative practice elements to what was a largely literary study programme. 

Professor Farrow had included creative writing components in Drama in Performance, first offered in 1997, then Experimental Theatre (later called Making Plays for Theatre) and Creative Processes – both offered initially in 2000. 

“The development of these practice-led courses or components helped to set the groundwork for the School’s first course focused purely and broadly on Creative Writing, which in turn led to the development of the full creative writing programme that we have today,” Professor Walpert said.

A key proponent was Dr John Muirhead (now retired), who proposed the Creative Writing course and who later, as Head of the School of English and Media Studies (whose programmes are now part of the School of Humanities, Media and Creative Communication), led the development of the Masters of Creative Writing (MCW). 

The School offered the first course that billed itself fully as Creative Writing in 2001, which was developed and run by Professor Lisa Emerson (now Director of Teaching and Learning in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences). 

This course proved extremely popular with hundreds of enrolments from the first year it was offered, and in 2004 the school began hiring dedicated creative writing lecturers. 

As well as Professor Walpert, current lecturers in the programme include Dr Thom Conroy, Associate Professor Ingrid Horrocks, Dr Laura Jean McKay, Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley, and Dr Jack Ross, who coordinates the Master’s in Creative Writing.

Array of NZ’s top writers teaching at Massey

There has also been a “virtual roll call” of who’s who in Aotearoa New Zealand writing teaching on the programme, including acclaimed writers such as Tina Makereti, Pip Adam, Anne Kennedy, Sarah Jane Barnett, Lynn Davidson, Joan Fleming, Stephanie Johnson and Tim Upperton. 

Creative Writing staff regularly publish books of poetry, fiction and creative non-fiction – with publishers in New Zealand and overseas – or write plays that have been performed here and abroad. Staff have published books that have appeared on the best-seller lists and have been recognised by writing awards in Aotearoa and overseas.

Today, after 20 successful years, the first course to bill itself as creative writing still exists – it is now called Creative Writing 1 – and is supplemented by a wide selection of undergraduate and postgraduate courses offered internally on all three Massey campuses (Manawatū, Wellington and Auckland), as well as online.

These include undergraduate courses in writing poetry, fiction, and creative non-fiction, as well as scriptwriting, playwriting, writing for children, eco-fiction and non-fiction, and travel writing. 

“Thousands of students have taken our courses over the years, and the numbers continue to grow, with total enrolments jumping by 67 per cent between 2016 and 2019,” Professor Walpert said.

Masters of Creative Writing added 

In 2011, with strong undergraduate enrolments, the Masters of Creative Writing (MCW) was added to the programme. Massey’s MCW is unique in being offered by distance and allows students the flexibility of fulltime or part-time study. There are also more than 20 PhD creative writing students who are in progress or have completed their doctorates.

In 2016 a new creative writing major and minor were established (these courses were previously part of the English major).

The celebration event on 21 May will include a panel discussion on “Creative Writing as Activism” and readings from a number of staff and students.

Student successes

Massey’s creative writing students have had great success, regularly publishing individual pieces in journals, publishing books, winning awards. Some examples are:

  • In 2015, MCW graduate Janet Newman won 1st place in the 2015 NZ Poetry Society International Poetry Competition for a poem written for her thesis. She won the 2017 International Writers’ Workshop (IWW) Kathleen Grattan Prize for a Sequence of Poems. She was one of three poets highly commended in the 2018 Caselberg Trust Poetry Award. She has published her poems widely in journals and has a book forthcoming in August with Otago University Press. 
  • In 2016, MCW graduate (and current doctoral student) Margaret Moores won 2nd place in the 2017 NZ Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. 
  • MCW graduate Sue Wootton published the creative portion of her MCW as the novel Strip (2016 Mākaro Press), which went on to be shortlisted for the 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Sue recently completed a PhD at the University of Otago. In 2021 she was named the publisher at Otago University Press. 
  • In 2017, graduate Bonnie Etherington published The Earth Cries Out (Penguin Random House), the creative portion of her MCW. The novel went on to longlisted for the 2018 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and shortlisted for the 2018 Saroyan Prize. Bonnie went on to get her PhD candidate in literature at Northwestern University in Chicago, United States. 
  • MCW graduate Gail Ingram won 1st place in the 2016 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition. She was named a Poetry Editor of the New Zealand literary journal Takahē in 2018, and published a book of poems based on the creative portion of her thesis, Contents Under Pressure (Pukeko Publications). She has been recognised by a number of awards, including the 2019 Caselberg International Poetry Competition Among other places her work has appeared in Poetry New Zealand, Atlanta Review, and multiple New Zealand Society of Authors anthologies.
  • Annabel Wilson’s Aspiring Daybook: The Diary of Elsie Winslow (Mākaro Press), a poetry collection based on her MCW thesis at Massey, was longlisted for the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. Annabel has also been awarded the RAK Mason Fellowship at New Zealand Pacific Studio (2016), the inaugural Australasian Association of Writers’ Programmes Emerging Writers’ Prize (2016) and a residency at the Robert Lord Writers’ Cottage (2017). 
  • 2018 MCW graduate Kim Fulton won 2nd place in the 2018 New Zealand Poetry Society International Poetry Competition with a poem from her MCW thesis and has published a book of poems, I kind of thought the alpacas were a metaphor until we got there
  • Dr Johanna Emeney published a version of her the creative portion of her doctoral thesis as a collection of poetry: Family History (Wellington: Mākaro Press, 2017). She developed the critical/scholarly portion into a book, The Rise of Autobiographical Medical Poetry and the Medical Humanities (ibidem, 2018). She has just published a new collection, Felt, with Massey University Press. Dr Emeney was awarded third place in the 2011 Hippocrates Prize for Poetry and Medicine.
  • Tim Upperton published a version of the creative portion of his doctoral thesis as a collection of poetry, The Night We Ate the Baby (HauNui Press), which was a finalist for the 2016 Ockham New Zealand Book Award for Poetry.
  • MCW student Tara Black published a version of her thesis as This is Not a Pipe (Victoria University Press, 2020)
  • Sarah Jane Barnett, a former doctoral student, has gone on to publish two collections of poetry—one of these, When a Man Runs Into a Woman (Hue & Cry Press), was short-listed for the 2013 New Zealand Post Book Award in poetry (now the Ockham New Zealand Book Award).
  • In 2019, Lynn Davidson published the creative portion of her PhD, Islander, with Shearsman Books in the UK, and Victoria University Press. She is currently the Randell Cottage Writer in Residence.  
  • MCW graduate Nataliya Oryshchuk won the Playwright’s Association of New Zealand 2018 One-Act Play Competition

Staff successes

Staff have recently forged strong trans-Tasman connections, with Dr Laura Jean McKay, Professor Bryan Walpert, Associate Professor Ingrid Horrocks and senior tutor Dr Gigi Fenster all having books published in Australia in 2020-21. 

Dr McKay’s The Animals in That Country (Scribe, Melbourne) won the Victorian Prize for Literature 2021 and the ABIA Small Press Adult Book of the Year 2021; Professor Walpert’s Late Sonata (Brio Books, Sydney) won the 2020 Viva La Novella Prize; Dr Horrocks’ highly-praised nonfiction book Where We Swim, which was published by Victoria University Press in Wellington is also coming out with the University of Queensland Press; and Gigi Fenster’s novel A Late Winter is forthcoming with Text (Melbourne) later this year after winning the 2020 Michael Gifkins Prize for an unpublished novel.

Other notable publications by staff include Dr Thom Conroy’s The Naturalist (Random House), which spent six months on the New Zealand bestseller list, Dr Jack Ross’s most recent collection of poems The Oceanic Feeling (Salt & Greyboy Press) and senior tutor Dr Johanna Emeney’s most recent poetry collection, Felt (Massey University Press). Associate Professor Elspeth Tilley, meanwhile, won the 2018 Playwrights’ Association of New Zealand Outstanding Achievement Award, recognising the many plays she has written that have been performed here and overseas.

Other highlights – New Zealand 

  • A visiting creative writing residency is held each year in Palmerston North – the writer has time to work on their own material but also contributes to the community and the University.
  • Professor Walpert and Dr Conroy started a literary readings series, a partnership between Massey and the Palmerston North City Library, in 2006. That series, now called Off the Page – and now coordinated by Dr Conroy and Dr McKay – has drawn more than 60 writers from New Zealand and beyond for readings and conversations.
  • The creative writing journal Headland is produced in partnership with our programme, with Dr Conroy as its editor-in-chief. 
  • Poetry New Zealand was housed in and published from our School from 2014-2020 and five Yearbook issues edited by Dr Ross, one by Dr Emeney (the last four of these were published by Massey University Press).

International connections

  • Associate Professor Horrocks is leading the hosting of NonfictioNOW, which will be held at the National Library of New Zealand in 2021. NonfictioNOW is the world’s leading gathering in the field of nonfiction creative writing, ranging across prose forms and extending into video, radio and visual arts. In normal years, about 400 international writer/scholars attend the biennial conference, established in 2005 by the prestigious creative writing programme at the University of Iowa. This event has been re-imagined as a hybrid in-person, digital event for our post-COVID world.
  • Dr Conroy organised an Australian Association of Writing Programmes (AAWP) conference in Wellington in 2014. 
  • Dr Conroy also led the development of a network of creative writing programmes in New Zealand and two associated conferences (Wellington and Auckland) that drew creative writing teachers from across New Zealand.