INTERVIEW WITH POET ELLEN CHANG-RICHARDSON
In these times that are unprecedented and surreal, it's helpful to remember that art is an ever-changing anchor, always unprecedented and surreal. We are in a pandemic.
Let’s go for a walk. I want to introduce you to the poet.
Ellen Chang-Richardson’s debut chapbook, Unlucky Fours, has earned praise in the Can-Lit poetry scene. The author-in-bloom walked away with the 2019 Vallum Award for Poetry and has been published in Vallum, Tending the Fire and GUEST. Of these early accolades, the humble poet says, “this is my second career and when I made the switch early last year, it felt like I was finally doing the thing I was meant to be doing. The recognition only goes to confirm that instinct.”
In reading ECR’s accessible and illustrative poems, I am especially drawn into the sparseness which can feel both comforting and cold at times. Yet there is great strength in ECR’s words. Their poems have consequences. Deep immersion into metaphor and the sensory only add to the uneasiness of ‘monsters’ and ‘gut-wrenching teeth clenching’.
So it makes sense that the gifted writer would have such underlying diversity in their personhood: Taiwanese and Cambodian-Chinese ethnic background, born in Toronto, raised in Oakville and grew up in São Paulo and Shanghai. With a cultural background described as international, Ellen jokes that “I was raised in a super waspy white neighbourhood (yeah, Oakville in the 1990s) but grew up as an ex-pat kid who moved between Canada, Brazil, Taiwan, and China.”
Besides the influence of a cosmopolitan upbringing, Chang-Richardson notes the primary impacts on her writing are politics, art history, and science.
As with poetry in general and her writing specifically, Ellen Chang-Richardson seems to be whatever she wants to be: reading, rock-climbing, writing, cycling, or baking and eating. But in a world of order, where autonomy is impoverished, I was curious how the poet came to find their poetic voice and they replied:
“I’ve always loved poetry. If you opened up a portal into the late 1990s/early 2000s, you’d probably find me in an indie bookstore browsing the poetry section. To quote my younger brother when I told him this is what I was going to try and do with my life, he said, ‘oh yeah, that makes sense.’ In terms of coming to write poetry, that falls hand in hand with reading it. I was an arts-oriented teenager so my journals from those times are full of sketches and sketched verse.”
Chang-Richardson maintains that art and politics have always been intertwined and that to understand this, one could look back to the Renaissance, “a revolt against the norm of the time and a rebirth of arts, philosophy, science, and culture.”
To witness other threads of expression meeting social change, Ellen suggests looking to the BIPOC/Indigenous artists of today. Also, historically to the DADA movement’s embrace and promotion of the intersection of the arts and performance.
On one particular dive into Chang-Richardson’s published works, I really enjoyed the poem, “urban facts”: for Ken Lum. The poem is part-homage and part-confrontation with a ‘global economy leaching us clean’. It describes class as a dividing force.
Chang-Richardson says that the poem is, “part of a working collection of ekphrastic poems about contemporary artists who have touched the trajectory of art history. It’s inspired by Lum’s oeuvre of works but breathes my own poetic license. For example, the years listed are specific dates of betrayal and a subsequent rise against colonial history right here in Canada.” (See FIGURE ONE, courtesy of Ellen Chang-Richardson)
1457: John Cabot lands on the shores of modern-day Labrador.
1670: The Hudson’s Bay Company is established to monopolize/capitalize on the fur trade.
1812: Canada promises American-Indigenous allies land in the US Northwest for fighting with us in the War of 1812. Promises were never upheld and Indigenous communities in the United States continue to fight for ownership of their land to this date.
1840: The Act of the Union is approved by Parliament, establishing the Province of Canada.
2012: Idle No More movement is founded, in opposition to resource exploitation. Protests are ongoing to this date.
2020: Wet’suwet’en conflict between Hereditary Chiefs, the Government of Canada, and Coastal Gaslink. Conflict ongoing to this date.
“Society is splintered because of the way we have allowed capitalism to take precedence over humanism. That has to change, really. The question is how and when and I think perhaps this pandemic is truly timely in that respect.”
Ah, yes, the pandemic.
At the time of this interview, three weeks into social distancing, Chang-Richardson reported that as an extrovert it was a struggle at first but with a group of six other poets (Manahil Bandukwala, Conyer Clayton, nina jane drystek, Chris Johnson, Margo LaPierre, Helen Robertson), they began a collaborative series of “exquisite corpse poems” which served as a lifeline before sliding comfortably into “the rhythm of dictated quarantine.”
While practicing social isolation currently, in pre-pandemic times Ellen Chang-Richardson was all about bringing people together. Ellen is the founder of Little Birds Poetry, a series of in-person editing workshops for poets and creative writers.
The role of such a bridging environment is to act as a balance in the isolating practice of writing itself. “Little Birds Poetry started because I wanted to create a community that was inclusive to all poets, no matter their professional training or publication history.”
Just prior to poetry being declared a non-essential service (hmmph), the series was gaining heavy traction, in both Ottawa and Toronto. There were waitlists! And then the festival of global pause for pandemic kicked in. But Chang-Richardson is undeterred.
“There are so many other avenues for virtual connection right now. rob mclennan’s periodicities, for one. Isabella Wang + the awesome team at Dead Poets Reading Series, for another. Rachel Thompson’s Writerly Love/Lit Mag Love series and Chelene Knight’s Learn Writing Essentials. Online book launches and readings via Instagram Live, Facebook Live, and Zoom.”
Ellen says that she would also like to invite folks to check out Riverbed: “a new multidisciplinary performance series that nina jane drystek and I co-founded together. We’ve had to revisit the medium of our launch due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but I think it’s safe to say that it will be just as awesome as if we were launching in person. So, stay tuned! The first event will take place May 20, 2020.”
Correspondence with Ellen and doing the research on her work and projects has been a blast. It is such a pleasure getting to know an artist who can write for reflection, entertainment, and resistance. Before ending, one final word from Ellen.
Advice for artists? “Read, voraciously.”
“Feel what you are absorbing. Think with your heart. Then think critically. Think critically about what you are absorbing. Think critically about what you believe. Think critically about what you want to say and who you want to be.”
Instagram: @ehjchang @littlebirdspoetry
Twitter: @ehjchang @lilbirdspoetry @riverbedreads
Facebook: @littlebirdspoetry @ehjchang
Unlucky Fours by Ellen Chang-Richardson: http://www.anstrutherpress.com/new-products/unlucky-fours-by-ellen-chang-richardson
“urban facts” for Ken Lum: