top of page

My Life Is More Important Than My Poetry: Stacey Teague Profiled by Lucy K Shaw

My Life Is More Important Than My Poetry: Stacey Teague

by Lucy K Shaw

Every time I talk to Stacey on Zoom, it’s autumn for one of us and spring for the other. Nighttime for one of us and morning for the other. I live in France, she lives in Aotearoa (New Zealand), and whenever we meet online from 19,000km away, twelve hours time difference, one of us is pale and wearing a woollen jumper, and one of us is sleeveless with freckles.

When I bring this up with Stacey at the beginning of our call, she simply says “Yeah, that’s how it is…” as though I’ve remarked upon the most mundane of details. And when we make small talk about our weekends and I mention having run eighteen miles the day before as part of my marathon preparation, she listens to me talk for a while about how brutal the training feels, and how despite being nervous about the event itself, I’m also beginning to worry about what will happen to my body afterwards, how strange it will feel to suddenly stop running so much. Stacey waits until I’ve finished talking and then asks with a perplexed expression, “What’s the motivation for this?” And I find I’m a little startled and don’t have a compelling answer. Her end of the day bluntness takes a moment to adjust to across the time zones and distance. But I requested that we do this interview, at 9am, the morning after I ran eighteen miles, knowing to expect this kind of dissonance.

I told her our conversation would be transcribed and edited, so we should just act natural, we don’t have to perform anything. We can be ourselves, twelve years into a friendship centred around poetry and publishing. Just two women who write and publish books on opposite sides of the planet, albeit in very different ways. I don’t think Stacey feels particularly enthusiastic about self-promotion in general, but I want to know what she’s been doing, and I want to tell you about it, so we’re here.

In March at the Wellington release of her second book, Plastic (Te Herenga Waka University Press), she tells me, she “decided to just read out the acknowledgements from my book and then I read one single poem.”

Stacey laughs as she recalls that “Everyone was like, you should have read more! And I said, no. Just one. You just get one.”

Which one? I ask, obviously. And she tells me it was a poem titled “Tikitiki.” I reread it later, and it’s a poem that feels distinctly kiwi with lines like “we play the game - are they Māori or are they - just wearing a pounamu.” And I have no idea what this means, so I look it up:

Pounamu is a term for several types of hard and durable stone found in the South Island of New Zealand. They are highly valued in New Zealand, and carvings made from pounamu play an important role in Māori culture.


Stacey was a member of the Profound Experience of Poetry Book Club that I ran for three years beginning in 2020, and during that time, at her suggestion, we read a couple of books by New Zealand authors, including He’s So MASC by Chris Tse and ransack by essa may ranapiri. She taught us about the precedent for including Māori language within kiwi poetry without translation or explanation. The idea being simply that if you care enough about understanding, you will seek out the meaning for yourself.

In Stacey’s first collection, Takahē, published by Scrambler Books in 2014, there was a glossary at the back to help out a reader like me. But her intended audience has changed now. The book’s title, Plastic, refers to a negative term often used to describe (or self-describe) Māori people who haven’t grown up closely connected to their culture, or who don’t speak the language of their ancestors, te reo Māori.

“It’s important to me that Māori people see themselves in this book. We all had the experience of not feeling Māori enough, not knowing our culture. No matter who we are and what our upbringing has been.

You can see the seeds of it in my first book. How I use some Māori language in it. But it all feels, to me, quite like I just don’t know what I’m doing and I don’t know anything about anything. That’s sort of true for this book too, but it’s more about my journey towards knowing. This is my book saying that I don’t know but telling you about how I’m learning and how I’m on that journey.”

When I first met Stacey in 2012, on the escalators at the TATE Modern in London, I had no idea about the significance of Māori culture to her life. It wasn’t something we spent a lot of time talking about.

“I was living away for a long time. And now that I’m here and have been back for six years or something, I can become more connected because I’m here. I’m connected to the land that I am from. It’s a lot easier to access that part of myself.”

And this is clearly evident in Plastic, a book which, though certainly directed towards a Māori audience, feels welcoming to anybody who’s interested and willing to learn. We’re allowed into her family life, her childhood and her whakapapa.

Okay now I’m doing it too.

It means genealogy.

So how does it feel to release a second full-length collection of poetry ten years after your first one?

“It feels much different. I feel more confident and more grounded, is the main thing. Just grounded in myself and in the work itself. I worked on it for a long time. I wrote the initial book in 2019 during my master’s and then I’ve spent since then working on it, so I feel like it is the best it can be. I’ve thought about it so much that I just feel good about it and can send it off into the world.”

But she’s still nursing some Fiona Apple-style philosophy, so don’t expect a flourish of new material after this.

“I don’t care about releasing books with any kind of urgency or at all. If I never release one again, it doesn’t matter. If I get there, I get there. I don’t like putting pressure on myself in that way because more importantly, I’m living a life. My life is more important than my poetry. That’s what I’ve come to realise in my older age.”

She’s smiling as she says this, but how old is she exactly, to have obtained this wisdom? I have to ask.

“35 next week.”

Happy Birthday.

The reason we’re really here, though, is to talk about the publishing operation Stacey has been running with Ash Davida Jane, fellow New Zealand poet, for the past few years: Tender Press.

Tender Press (formerly We Are Babies, but that’s another story) has published six books since launching in 2021. Five of their titles are poetry and their most recent is an essay collection, though they’re open to all forms of literature. The press has “a particular interest in work by people of colour and queer, indigenous, disabled, and otherwise marginalised writers” and this shows in the books they have published so far. One title, Whai by Nicole Titihuia Hawkins, “explores what it means to be Māori in a colonised space,” while We’re All Made of Lightning by Khadro Mohamed “expertly navigates the experience of being a Muslim woman in Aotearoa,” and Articulations by Henrietta Bollinger “challenges the norms of our ableist society.”

They’ve held two open reading periods, and while the first produced no manuscripts they felt compelled to turn into books, they’re persevering with a second round as we speak.

When I tell Stacey that I don’t really want to open submissions for my press, Shabby Doll House, and that I tend to just happen upon manuscripts organically, she tells me, with defiance, “I just feel like sometimes... you don’t know everyone! There are some people who you just don’t know their work for whatever reason, and it’s really good, and this is a way for everyone to have a chance if they want to.” Which, I mean, is very true. But how do you balance all that reading with your own writing, as well as everything else in your life?

“The answer to that is that I kind of don’t, and it's something that I’ve been thinking about. Basically for the whole time that I’ve been doing this publishing thing, Ash and I have been saying that the time we would normally put into writing, we put into doing this instead. I do want to work on my own work more.”

Sounds familiar, although I’m not complaining.

At the release for Plastic in Wellington, Stacey’s collaborator Ash gave a speech that included the lines:

“Stace and I have had lots of conversations about the point of publishing a book, which is ironic if you know that we own and run a publishing press together, but we’ve often ended up at the answer that it’s just a good excuse to have a big party.”

Something else I can relate to. We put so much time and effort into these projects, it’s essential we have something to look forward to.

“It’s good to work with another person.” Stacey tells me. “I get to hang out with my friend and we’ll be talking about publishing stuff but we get to hang out while we’re doing it and have some lunch together.”

An idyllic scene to picture, but what are they like as editors?

“We have edited books together, we have done it separately, and we have done it together as well. It’s really nice editing a book with someone because you just feel like you can pick up everything. Two people, obviously, are better than one. And it’s really important for us to have a conversation (with the author) before we start the editing process being like, and this seems like a really simple thing to say, but what we’re going to suggest... they’re just suggestions. You don’t have to accept everything we say. Let’s have conversations about it. We don’t want you to think, oh they want me to do this so I should just do it. That’s not the relationship that we want to have. We’re all just trying to make the work as strong as it can be. If you feel really strongly about something, we’re not going to fight you on it. We’re going to be like, sweet! Yeah that works as well. We’re just trying things out.

And the other thing is, letting the author take the lead if they want to. Some people don’t want to, but some people want to be very involved so we just vibe with whatever they need. If they have a really specific vision, there’s no reason why we can’t give them that exact thing.

We just want our authors to be happy and we want to give them what they want,” Stacey tells me.

I’m actually wondering about how people outside of New Zealand discover these books, (in fact it’s via their website,) but she’s telling me about their recent endeavour to record an audiobook and produce an eBook, for Bollinger’s Articulations, as the author is a disability rights advocate who wanted to ensure access for as many readers as possible. She tells me about how a friend of theirs works at a radio station and welcomed them into the studio to record the audiobook. And, surprisingly, that’s not the only time radio stations come up.

“In New Zealand, it’s very particular. Books are often only stocked in New Zealand stores, and people can order them from overseas but it’s very expensive, and so what you’re looking at is a very, very small market. And you get to know which print and digital publications often do things with poetry. Our national radio station often does reviews. Everyone knows the places that are more likely to accept pitches.”

Do you think you have the same opportunities as a more established press? You could get on the national radio station, for example?

“Yeah, for sure.”

Wow, that’s very cool. So it feels like there’s a machine or system in place, if you want to do this. There are places you can get support from?

“Yeah totally. Although it is one of those things about who you know as well. It’s a small industry. New Zealand is quite unique. It’s very separate and contained. We’re just out here on our own, very insular vibes, though we want people overseas to read our books!”

So what’s on the agenda for Tender Press? (The tender agenda.)

“We want to publish more but we do need to secure some funding. We feel quite confident that we will get some but you never know these days.

Since we published our last book, I was quite burnt out and I needed a rest. Apart from the fact that we don’t have any money. It’s a good time to just chill and actually, before I came on this call we were applying for funding. It’s super hard to make any money in publishing. Or it’s actually not possible, I think. It’s possible to break even but we can’t do it without funding.”

What keeps you motivated to keep going with this waste of time and money?

“It’s definitely not a waste. For me, it is a real privilege to be able to do this. People’s work is really important to them, and you have to take that seriously. I like the whole process of working with an author and putting all this work into it and then seeing the finished product, holding the printed book in your hands and thinking we published this! We did it! Seeing the author being so happy and getting to launch the book and there’s this release of energy! It’s pretty gratifying.

And we get to do lots of cool shit. Two of our books have won awards at the New Zealand Book Awards so we got to travel and go to the awards. We get to meet lots of cool people. Sometimes people give us passes to festivals because we’re publishers. There are perks to it. You learn a lot about the industry and how things work.

But for me, though, I just really like editing. Something about being so close to someone’s work and really living inside that work. Reading it over and over and over. I love this. I’ve always liked editing.”

It’s more about the relationship with the book than the celebration at the end.

“Yeah. The work is the most important part. It’s the work that we are drawn to. We want to publish it, not because of who it is, but because of what the work is saying and how it’s important to New Zealand as a society for this work to be out there.”

You feel a sense of cultural responsibility?

“I can think of the Māori word for this but not the English word. It’s called the kaupapa. The philosophy of our press is that we want to represent underrepresented writers. Stories that aren’t often heard in the mainstream.”

I think back to earlier in our conversation when Stacey told me about a negative experience she’d had during her master’s. She told me that the feedback she received at the end of her program “unhinged me a little bit” and that it halted progress on her book because she “couldn’t look at it for a long time.”

“I just took it all really hard and I didn’t feel confident in the work at all because I felt that people didn’t like it.

It knocked my confidence a lot because I felt that I believed in the work and then I was made to feel like I was wrong, which is quite huge. So it took me a while to build back and say that I do believe in this work and it is good, and a lot of people helped me on that journey, mainly other Māori writers who gave me feedback and words of encouragement.”

It’s clear that all of this is connected. Her journey towards the celebration of her Māori identity, the intentionality of the choices made by Tender Press to be an inclusive and positive force for good in the publishing landscape, and the confidence she has found not only in her own voice, but in her ability to nurture other writers too.

When we say goodbye after a couple of hours of talking through the computer screens, Stacey’s going to bed and I’m beginning another new day. The spring is starting. The summer’s ending. And there is always more work for us to do.

But I feel better knowing that we’re in on it together.


Stacey Teague (Ngāti Maniapoto/Ngāpuhi) is a writer, editor and teacher living in Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand. She is a publisher at Tender Press, an independent publisher based in Wellington with the aim to publish excellent writing and a particular interest in work by people of colour and queer, indigenous, disabled, and otherwise marginalised writers.

Lucy K Shaw started Shabby Doll House, a publisher of arts and literature established in 2012.


This profile is part of Peach's Indie Lit series, which spotlights the creative, experimental, often brief, often shoestring, and always underreported-upon projects in independent publishing. We are now open to pitches of interviews and profiles for this series; learn more here.


bottom of page