Rachel Rooney, winner of the CLPE Poetry award 2012 with The Language of Cat, shares the five things she wishes she'd known about poetry before she started writing it
Rachel Rooney wins CLPE Poetry award – read her poem
Tip 1: Poetry is a balance between truth and lies
When I teach on workshops with young poets, I often get them to introduce themselves by stating one truth and one lie about themselves, asking them to make it difficult for me to guess which statement is which. I find that the students who make the most convincing liars (the ones who add interesting and original detail to their statements), are often those who go on to produce the most interesting poetry.
But poetry is also about telling the truth, or at least a truth as you see it. A poem has to convince the reader of its honesty. If you feel strongly about what you are writing, even if you have to exaggerate or lie to get your point across, then this will shine through. A poem needs to be believed, if only for the duration of the reading or writing of it.
Tip 2: Poetry involves work, rest and play
Writing a good poem rarely comes easily. It involves hard work, especially in the early stages when you are deciding on the overall form and tone of the poem; getting the bones of it onto the page. It often helps to leave a first draft to rest for an hour, a day or even a week, so you can re visit it with fresh eyes and ears.
But writing poetry should be a playful activity, too. You need to be enjoying yourself, even when exploring difficult or sad themes. Have fun playing around with the language, the ideas and the music inside the poem.
Tip 3: Poetry requires both words and silence
Poetry has been defined as "the best words in their best order". The language you use does not have to be complex or flashy, but do choose your words carefully for their sounds and meaning. There is a limited number of words within a poem so each one needs to work hard to justify being on the page.
But poetry is also about silence. Just as the white space on the page is needed to shape the pattern of words, so the thoughts that are left unsaid, the pauses, the quiet hints, will add to something extra to your poem. Don't be scared of the gaps that you leave. If you have created enough solid stepping stones in words and thoughts, then the reader will follow you to the end of the poem without falling in.
Tip 4: Poetry needs an emotion - and the control of that emotion
Writing poetry is a very personal activity. Poets often turn to writing a poem when they experience a strong emotion and have the need to express it. The reading of other people's poetry can also give comfort or a sense that you are not alone in how you are feeling.
But be careful not to swamp your poem with abstract emotions and don't tell your readers how to think or feel. Instead, try to show them by using descriptions that involve the senses and by choosing interesting images that reflect your mood.
Tip 5: Writing poetry can be difficult to start and hard to let go
It is often difficult to know how to start a poem, but the trick is to recognise the beginnings of them, in everyday life. Poems don't have to come from grand, exciting events. They can start from remembering a funny conversation that you've overheard at the bus stop; yesterday's nightmare; a secret you've been told; or an interesting postcard that you notice in a shop. If you catch yourself thinking about something for more than a minute or two then you can develop some more ideas - a bit like the way you can keep a good dream going. And that's when you reach for a pen and some paper and starting jotting down thoughts, words and phrases.
Of course, you will sometimes find your ideas lead nowhere or that you can't turn them into a poem however many different ways you try. But don't let that put you off. There will always be another beginning waiting to be noticed.
Rachel Rooney trained as a special needs teacher and currently works with children with autistic spectrum condition. She also teaches poetry workshops. She has been shortlisted for the Belmont poetry prize, commended in the 2010 Escalator poetry competition, and 60 of her poems have been published in children's poetry anthologies. The Language of Cat is her first book of collected poems. She lives in Brighton.
Buy The Language of Cat at the Guardian bookshop