Little Birds Poetry workshops, a free monthly gathering at Black Squirrel Books & Espresso Bar, is a space created to bring Ottawa’s poets closer together and give them a space to perfect their work. This is their story.
The Humble Designer
Behind Little Birds is Ellen Chang-Richardson. Ellen has the ability to instantly make someone feel special. Her total attention was on me. Welcoming and non-judgmental, she made me feel at ease. People who give such experiences are rare, and it immediately makes sense why she’s managed to create such a successful workshop for Ottawa poets.
It’s difficult to get Ellen to talk about herself. She’s humble and doesn’t list achievements, brag, or go on about herself. Instead, her focus is on Ottawa.
Multiculturalism is a major part of who Ellen is. She was born in Oakville, but raised in São Paulo, Brazil and Shanghai, China. After travelling the world, Ellen found Ottawa, fell in love with the city and made it home. With her multicultural mindset, Ellen is looking “to find the similarities between people instead of the things that might set them apart.”
She’s a bright spot in the city, indeed. Local poet and publisher Amanda Earl agrees: “Ellen is an energetic organizer with vision and a thoughtful poet. Her friendliness and willingness to initiate new projects are great contributions to Ottawa’s literary scene.”
In 2019, Ellen was searching for a place to edit her almost-finished poems. Drafts in hand, she looked around, but all she could locate were collectives that were either expensive or exclusive. “You either had to be a part of the writing community already, or you had to know people who could vouch for you to be a part of a writing group,” she said. Options for getting valuable feedback were slim.
So Ellen started building her own place where she could gain feedback on her work. In just 30 days, Ellen transformed an idle thought into a community. Design: registered. Location: secured. Long table: booked. Logo: designed (in collaboration with graphic designer Samin Emrani). Strategically placed postcards: picked up, noticed. Her goal was to create something “approachable” and “recognizable.” Eventually, she found her little birds.
Little Birds is the title of Anais Nin’s second book of erotica and, in Ellen’s words, the name is “a literary nod to a female writer who was kicking ass in a time when it was difficult for womxn to write and publish in America.” Even if you aren’t familiar with Nin’s work, “it’s still a fun, accessible and memorable name,” said Ellen. “One attendee told me it reminds them of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I suppose it fits!”
Little Birds meets 12 times a year, minimum. Registration is required, as space is limited to ensure a small, personalized setting. Interested parties can contact Ellen directly (firstname.lastname@example.org). If you can’t attend one month, merely request a seat for next month. In the meantime, pop-ups may happen, but the only way to find out is by signing up for the #LBPNews newsletter. If trends continue, Little Birds will convene twice as often. Little Birds is free, although donations are accepted, and go directly towards operating costs (website domain/hosting fees, promotional materials, etc.).
“Since Little Birds started up in Ottawa, I have loved knowing there is a consistent place I can go to get feedback from writers I know and admire,” said local multidisciplinary artist Conyer Clayton. “I’ve met several folks through these workshops I wouldn’t have otherwise, in a setting that Ellen manages to make feel both intimate and professional. I really value Little Birds as a place in the Ottawa literary community to meet and learn from others, and help refine my craft. Ellen is working hard to build community here, and I feel lucky to have gotten to know her over the past few months in both a professional sense, and as a friend.”
Positive, Inclusive Edits
Little Birds sees editing as positive and constructive. “If one writer isn’t ready to share, we’ll go around the table in the opposite direction so that they can see how it works first,” Ellen said. “It’s hard to share work that is so emotionally close.”
She ensures her table is full of positive energy. “We work in a circle. Each writer is given the opportunity to read their piece out loud or not; to answer questions/explain the piece, or not. Each writer works differently, and the workshops operate with that in mind. After the piece is presented, attendees take a few minutes to edit the page. We then discuss, round-table.”
No lectures, no put-downs, no trash talking. Instead, new poets, poetic styles, publications, contests, and other opportunities—space where you can learn about Ottawa, as attendees share favourite places to eat, shop, and go for drinks. You and your “nearly-there” poems are in a good place under Ellen’s wing.
For the Community
Ellen also believes in cities, people, and working together. Writing is solitary and private, so producing a space where people come together makes writing less of an alone thing. Meeting with a group who love doing what you do, in an inclusive and encouraging space, motivates authors to press on because a welcoming team is waiting (when you’re ready) to help you polish your pieces to perfection.
Little Birds is central to our literary community, a pillar that local writers know is there, like a star in the sky. Many poets and short fiction writers are comforted that this space exists and is open to them. Many who join become a #littlebirdspoet, making a bigger, cozier nest.
What Ellen has told me has real melody. It moves from the air, swoops around me, and lands on my arm. A positive feeling. What’s clear is the care, community, people and words that makes Ottawa poetry all the more wonderful.
Little Birds Poetry has postponed all editing meetups until further notice. However, Ellen is highlighting one literary magazine per day for National Poetry Month. In the meantime, more information and contacts can be found on their website and Facebook page.