“Growing up, I didn’t see myself clearly as Māori. I knew it was complicated, even as a child.” Stacey Teague, poet, publisher and author of Plastic. (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

Stacey Teague is one of a burgeoning number of wāhine Māori poets in Aotearoa. Her new book, Plastic, published this year, explores whakapapa, place, and mana wahine. “A love letter to us s0-called ‘plastic’ Māori”, as essa may ranapiri writes, “to us queer Māori, to us still searching for their place as Māori, a love letter to the powerful kuia who make us who we are, and spells to utter a better world in.”

Here, Stacey, who also runs small publishing house Tender Press and teaches preschoolers in Wellington, is in conversation with another wahine Māori poet, Maraea Rakuraku.

 

Nō hea koe? Where did you grow up?

I whakapapa to Ngāti Maniapoto in the Waitomo area, and to Ngāpuhi in Ruakākā. And I grew up in Titirangi in West Auckland. Now I live in Wellington.

And your whānau?

My dad’s Pākehā, and he was a builder. And my mum worked for an accounting firm. I have an older sister and we’d spend our time glued to the TV. We were obsessed with movies. We had our own little world that didn’t really include our parents.

I encountered your writing in international journals, when you were writing as part of the Māori diaspora. How long were you away from Aotearoa?

I was overseas for about six years. And, I guess, when I was writing during that time, I was always trying to feel connected to my whakapapa and to everything back here. After living in a few different parts of the world (Australia, Ireland and the UK), I knew I needed to be back home where I could feel truly connected again. So I came back in 2019.

All the poems in Plastic were written here in Aotearoa, after I returned.

I think that my return to Aotearoa meant a lot of different things for me. Moving to Wellington was a new chapter of my life. I had just turned 30, I was single, and I was ready to really look at myself and see what mattered. It felt like a long time coming.

I researched my whakapapa, I visited my marae for the first time, had conversations with whānau, and read a lot. And there were other things happening too, like coming out as queer. There was a lot of looking back at my childhood, my own personal history, and interrogating discomfort.

When I was growing up, I didn’t see myself clearly as Māori. I knew it was complicated, even as a child.

As soon as I saw the title of your book, I thought: “That’s about being a plastic Māori.” I think about how your aunty called your mum a plastic Māori — she was always referring to your mum as “Ngāti Plastic” — and your mum responds with: I don’t need to say who I am, my whakapapa is enough. I don’t need to prove I’m Māori.

And there’s the part where your uncle asks if you finally know your bones

I think many whānau Māori will be familiar with the feeling of shame that comes with not knowing their whakapapa, not knowing the reo, even though it’s not their fault. It’s the reality of having been colonised, as you write in the book. (See excerpt below.)

“I have a lot of empathy for me as a kid. For this little Māori kid who didn’t know they were Māori.” Plastic was published by Te Herenga Waka University Press (March 2024). Cover illustration by Sarah McNeil.

And there are recurring themes around plastic as well — like the photographs being layered under plastic. I really love the interplay that you’ve got throughout the works because it’s such a consistent theme. And the cover is neat!

That’s based on a photograph of me and my grandparents’ dog, and I dedicated it to little me. And that was a real last minute dedication. I just suddenly realised that’s who I was writing the book for. I have a lot of empathy for me as a kid. For this little Māori kid who didn’t know they were Māori.

When Snoop Dogg got a star on the Hollywood Boulevard, he said: “And finally I want to thank myself.” People were laughing at him, but I thought there was a real humility in what he said. Like, “I thank myself for getting up every day.” Like when the world is saying no and you’re saying yes. You must back yourself, and if other people back you, that’s just an added bonus.

That’s what I’ve learned through writing this book, for sure.

Wāhine and atua wāhine feature a lot in Plastic. 

That was really important to me. As I was learning more about my whakapapa, I had these two big folders that my aunty gave me, full of research and family trees and anecdotes about a lot of the people in our whānau who I didn’t know. I’d never met them, but I created these narratives for them based on these tidbits and photographs. I wanted to know their lives and their pain, and I could feel it.

And it didn’t seem like the men were as important. They were kind of by the wayside. On my mum’s side, there are not really any men. It’s all women. My mum has six sisters and one brother. So, for me, it’s very matriarchal. I never knew my koro. He died before I was born. Women were all I knew. So, it felt right to focus on them.

Now tell me about the spells — there’s lots of spells in your book.

I was in the library and I found this book called Māori Poetry: The Singing Word by Barry Mitcalfe. It had all of these spell titles and spells in it, which I took as inspiration. I liked how they sounded, so I wrote a few of them down, and I made up some of my own. They’re small and contained, and it was a really nice process writing them.

As you go from the beginning to the end of Plastic, it’s like the works all talk back to each other. And I’m assuming that was purposeful and probably also part of your crafting. And then there’s the experimentation that you’ve taken with the way things look on the page, which I always find as a reader is so important — otherwise I get lost if I don’t have time to breathe between lines or statements.

I did put a lot of time into thinking about how to put the poems together, like the ordering and the way they look on the page. The presentation of them really matters. It’s not just words on a page. I spent ages with paper on the floor, moving them around, because you need to see it physically in the space. How everything works and how everything speaks to each other is really important within a collection as well.

When I’m feeling stuck, I like to take an essay and put it through a text randomizer. And that takes all the text and shuffles it, so it doesn’t make sense. And then you have this block of text and you challenge yourself by only using words for the poems that are in that block.

The text randomizer sounds like that exercise back in the day when we’d cut up words with the scissors and then put them on the floor and mix them around.

That’s how I did one of the poems, “Whaka”, after I did that with an essay by Anahera Gildea. I was actually convening a workshop with rangatahi, and I got them to do it. It’s really cool doing stuff like that — physically cutting up things and putting them together, because you just mix it up and shake up your brain. It’s the same with the text randomizer.

The poetry scene in Wellington is quite vibrant in a different way to Auckland, nē?

That’s what I really like about it. If there’s a poetry launch or a poetry reading, everyone just comes because it’s just down the road. It’s easy. There is a community here and everyone knows each other.

Have you found it supportive?

For sure. Like, in the acknowledgments for my book, I shouted out all the writing communities I’ve been a part of in my life because I genuinely don’t think I’d be writing without writing communities and their support, especially when I was younger and lacked confidence.

It’s people giving you opportunities and telling you they really like your work that makes you want to keep doing it. I’m a lot better now. But I went through many phases of being like: “Is my writing any good?” I still have those moments even now.

We seem to be having a moment with wāhine Māori poets, and that was never really the case maybe 10 years ago. And now there are just so many. I wonder what that does in creating competition. When you look at the very capitalist models that we operate under, with writing competitions, writing festivals and how that then goes into creating elitism and a hierarchy. What are your thoughts about that, Stacey?

I agree that there’s so many awesome wāhine Māori poets around, and I personally don’t feel any competition or anything like that. I think we all just support each other and want each other to do well. We’re all just vibing and doing our own thing.

I also like how all of us are writing different stuff. What we’re putting out is diverse. It’s not just all the same thing, you know? I think a lot of the poetry that’s being written by wāhine Māori is accessible to everyone.

Domestically, if we’re having a moment of wāhine Māori poets, where are the men? Hello, tāne? Kai hea koe? Kai hea koutou?

Yeah, I was just trying to think of some!

It’s a really exciting time for Māori poetry and Māori writing in general. There are so many voices coming through. And I think it’s just about encouraging the young people, the rangatahi, to write and to express themselves in that way. So, it starts in schools, I guess.

When you were growing up, who were the writers that were hitting your interest levels?

I wasn’t a huge reader, and in high school I really liked Sylvia Plath — and still do. I was always interested in writing though. I was a quiet kid, and I was good at writing, literacy, English and all that stuff. I just found it intuitive to write, and I felt a strong urge to do it. I started writing poetry when I was 14 and I haven’t really stopped. That’s just the way that made sense for me to express myself.

Was it encouraged in your schooling?

No. It was just something that I did myself. I cultivated it on my own.

Is that because you’re the quiet kid who was ignored or the quiet Māori kid who was just pushed to the side?

Maybe a bit of both. I didn’t have a good experience at high school. I didn’t have much interest in schoolwork and sort of just scraped by. All I wanted to do was hang out with my friends and listen to music on my Discman. It was when I left school that my education began, and I taught myself a lot of things. I didn’t go to university for a couple of years, and then when I did, I dropped out halfway through my degree.

I was able to enter the masters programme at the International Institute of Modern Letters (IIML, at Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University) because of my portfolio. The bones of Plastic were written in that year.

It was probably the best year of my life. I work really well to deadlines. Give me a deadline, and I’ll do it, but if I don’t have a deadline, I won’t do it.

So, it was great, and I really buckled down. You get time and space to write, and you’re being supported to write with your cohort, which I’d never had before and I haven’t had since. I work as an early childhood teacher, which I love, but it means I don’t have a lot of time in my life to write.

Stacey at the launch of her book Plastic. (Photo: Todd Atticus)

A completed manuscript is always the outcome of the IIML programme. Was Plastic that manuscript? How were you feeling about it?

I came out of the MA a bit disillusioned with my work, to be honest. I was very sensitive to the feedback, and I needed time and space. I needed to be able to come back to it and see it with fresh eyes.

And I did that. I worked on it for a few years, and then I submitted it in 2023 to Te Herenga Waka University Press. And they published it. I put in a lot of work on Plastic. I really wanted it to be perfect.

My external marker at IIML was Hinemoana Baker, and they gave me great feedback. I sort of came to them when I was feeling all over the place. They were so reassuring to me. They really said everything that made me feel like, okay, I can do this. And then I had a couple of Māori writers look over the manuscript, Sinead Overbye and essa may ranapiri. That was really important for me to get feedback from them. So those people really helped me along the way.

And I was lucky to have a very positive experience with my publisher. I’m really happy with how my book turned out.

We’ve just been talking here about your book, but, of course, you’re a publisher yourself — and a successful one. Two titles by Tender Press had back-to-back success at the Ockham Book Awards. Whai (2022) by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, and We’re All Made of Lightning (2023) by Khadro Mohamad got the Jesse McKay prize for Best First Book of Poetry.

Stacey, what is the whakapapa of Tender Press?

Tender Press started as We are Babies in 2021. My friend Ash Davida Jane and I helped out with editing, and when the founders Carolyn Decarlo and Always Becominging decided to step away, we just sort of inherited it. We changed the name to Tender Press in 2022. Same kaupapa, new team.

So Tender Press is me and Ash. We have a designer that we use, Ya-Wen Ho, who’s the only other person that we actively collaborate with.

At the moment, the hardest thing is money. We rely on grants and funding which makes me nervous, because it’s not sustainable. We publish two or three books a year, so there’s not a lot of money to be made here. You know, we break even and a little bit more, but it’s not enough to keep publishing without support from external organisations.

But we want to keep doing what we’re doing. And it may be that we just publish one book a year. We’re not sure yet.

There are a lot of people who don’t want to be published by mainstream presses because they want to have more control, and we can provide that for them. I mean, that’s what we want too. For us, it’s a real collaboration. We’re in constant dialogue with our writers. We want them to have the work that they envision. And that’s the advantage of going with a smaller press — more freedom and control.

So how do you seek works or writers? Do you identify writers or do writers approach you? I’m thinking, particularly for rangatahi, it can be quite intimidating for them to approach a publisher.

We have open reading periods where anyone can submit a manuscript, and that makes it more inclusive. We’ve had two so far and it’s been great — we’ve read a lot of great stuff. So, that’s one way.

It’s important to us that people know our kaupapa. We want underrepresented voices, and we prioritise that because we believe they are the voices that need to be heard in Aotearoa.

And you want to encourage people to know that their voice has value. It can be different to mine, yours, but it still has value.

Totally. For instance, we published anomalia by Cadence Chung in 2022, when she was in her last year of high school. So talented. Can you imagine what stuff she’ll be writing when she’s older?

It’s exciting for Aotearoa. Because it’s an investment in developing rangatahi and diversity, and it’s shaking up conservative New Zealand publishing models.

Stacey, did you ever consider publishing Plastic yourself, through Tender Press?

No, because that’s not the kaupapa of our press.

To publish your own stuff?

Yeah. I just wouldn’t feel comfortable with that. I know lots of other awesome presses who do that. But, for me, it’s more about prioritising other people’s voices. And I’m just there to support that behind the scenes. So it’s not about me.

*

An excerpt from Plastic.

“Somewhere in the back of my mind, I felt proud to be Māori. I just couldn’t show it.” (Photo: Ebony Lamb)

BONE PEOPLE

Bones are whakapapa. When Māori talk about bones, they are invoking their whole whakapapa — their entire tribal history, family, and affiliations. — Anahera Gildea.

 

Are you finally getting to know your bones? my uncle asks me at a family gathering.

I am ashamed, yes, but resolute. How have I moved through the world for so long without knowing my own bones?

It’s easy, when the messages you receive are that it is not a good thing to be Māori. You hide away, you pretend to be something else. It was easy to cosplay as Pākehā. I didn’t have a Māori name; I had red curly hair and freckles; I didn’t know my whakapapa. Somewhere in the back of my mind though, I felt proud to be Māori. I just couldn’t show it.

I know more now. I know how it feels to be connected to place. Even though technically it is not here, it is here. Here are the ancestors, here are the people. But I am both colonised and coloniser. How to embrace all my parts?

When I was young I politely answered anybody who asked me, “What percent Māori are you though?” At that time, it seemed like everybody was obsessed with blood quantum. But I was asked this same question recently, too. I had to grit my teeth. He pukuriri ahau. When you feel that anger in your stomach.

My aunty says all Māori are a fruit salad — mixed. That’s the reality of being a part of a race that was colonised. I try to remind myself of this.

 

Plastic by Stacey Teague was published by Te Herenga Waka University Press.

Stacey Teague (Ngāti Maniapoto/Ngāpuhi) is a poet, publisher, editor and teacher. She is the author of the poetry collection takahē (Scrambler Books, 2014) and two chapbooks: not a casual solitude (Ghost City Press, 2016) and hoki mai (If a Leaf Falls Press, 2020). Stacey is a publisher and editor at Tender Press. She is the former poetry editor for Scum Mag and Awa Wahine. In 2019, she completed an MA in Creative Writing at the International Institute of Modern Letters.

E-Tangata, 2024

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