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March 24, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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IIML Prize in Modern Letters

On the morning of March 15, the day the IIML Prize in Modern Letters was awarded, the Dominion Post was anxious. PUBLISH and be ignored, said the headline of its Indulgence section, followed by a byline worried about how “few of our homegrown writers make it big overseas.”

The article cast a peculiarly ironic shadow across Saturday’s award, a celebration of the strength and talent of six emerging writers. The Prize in Modern Letters is awarded biennially to a writer who has published no more than two books. With a prize of $65,000, funded by US business leader and arts philanthropist Glen Schaeffer, the award is New Zealand’s largest literary award.

This year’s line-up covered all fields of literature with two novelists, two poets, one short story writer and one author of non-fiction. The readings, given by each author, were, as a result, diverse. From Anna Sanderson’s expression and clarity of language in Brainpark, to the peculiar poignancy of Jo Randerson’s short story ‘My Four Cousins’, to the wit of the overall winner David Beach whose work, Abandoned Novel, is his first published book of poetry.

“I receive criticism for allowing suffering,” he writes in God 3, borrowing the voice of God, “But people aren’t aware how many times I have concealed the earth from aliens.” Judge Brigid Hughes, New York literary editor (The Paris Review; A Public Space) acknowledged the “wide range of work and the vitality of voices of the six writers.” It had been a particularly difficult choice, she said, as each book “made literature new in some way; each added something valuable to the writing community.” While the judging was difficult she commended Beach’s winning poetry for its authenticity and its verve, its highs and its lows, and for the fact that she was still arguing with it and figuring it out.

Beach was surprised to win the award; while waiting on the shortlist, he said, “all one can be is pessimistic but with fingers crossed.” He recognized the talent of the other five on the shortlist, and thanked Schaeffer for his backing of the award. “I’ll revert to a connection with the Almighty,” quipped Beach, “and I’ll say: ‘God bless him.'”

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