‘I’m proud to be from Wales, but I don’t think I’ve got much of a nationalist streak’

Welsh poet Cal Ellis talks about using the written word to highlight the reality of growing up in Cardiff 

Poet Cal Ellis stands holding a copy of his poem 'The Dragon in a Bally'
Poet Cal Ellis pictured in Cardiff Indoor Market, one of the locations where his poem is displayed. Photo – Erin Zammitt.

Writer, director, frontman of a punk band, Cal Ellis’s career is multifaceted to say the least. “A jack of all trades, and a master of none!” he says with a laugh.

While performing has come naturally to him from a young age, writing is Cal’s primary form of expression and is the common thread in all his creative ventures.

The 26-year-old grew up in Cathays and has always lived in and around central Cardiff, so it was perhaps only natural that he used his talent to speak up about his hometown. 

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Pop-up poem

Earlier this year, Cal’s poem The Dragon in the Bally was stuck up on walls around Cardiff. 

It was inspired by a subversive image, by friend and local artist Revealist, of the Welsh dragon clad in a balaclava that he immediately found captivating. 

The poem was completed in a single writing session and expresses a nuanced view about the capital city.

It talks about “corporate horror and mass gentrification” that has created a divide between Cardiff and the rest of Wales.

Perhaps this is partly to do with the language, and as a non-Welsh speaker, Cal admits he often doesn’t feel very Welsh.

He says, “It doesn’t feel like a Welsh place, because most of the people in Cardiff aren’t Welsh, they’re from all over the world.”

Perhaps this is true, as new ONS data from the 2021 Census shows that Cardiff is the Welsh local authority with the highest proportion of non-UK born residents, with one in six residents born overseas. 

But the diverse mix of people is what Cal loves most about his home.

“What is it to be from anywhere?” he says. “The biggest boundary to cross is never where someone’s from, it’s always the sort of person they are.

“I’m proud to be from Wales, but I don’t think I’ve got much of a nationalist streak in me.”

The biggest boundary to cross is never where someone’s from, it’s always the sort of person they are

Mixed response

The reaction to the poem was more than Cal could have dreamed, and he received plenty of Instagram messages from people who resonated with his words, something he doesn’t take for granted.

He says, “It captured the essence of what others feel. That’s really humbling, and really cool that you can be the articulation of someone else’s thoughts.”

Cal even ended up attending the Shelter Cymru People and Homes Conference in June as part of a panel on gentrification and social justice, an achievement he still sounds surprised about. 

The response to the poem wasn’t completely positive, with some of the copies being torn down, but Cal likes that his work split public opinion.

“You know you’ve made a good impact when people like it and people hate it,” he says, “because that controversy is making people think and challenging them.”

But what’s next for Cal Ellis? “There’s more writing, there’s exploring new mediums,” he says. “That’s something I love doing, the adventure of it.”

One thing’s for sure, this jack of all trades won’t be boxing himself in any time soon.

Cal’s other projects:
  • Drunkalots – a collection of short stories released in March which centres around the theme of drug and alcohol addiction
  • Shackles of Shame – a punk cover band, of which Cal is the lead singer
  • Razzed Up Co – an online project with the aim of “celebrating and highlighting the importance of neurodivergent artists and creatives in Wales”