Category Archives: Writing Life

This Contest and Your Poem: a primer for novice poets

Image by graur razvan ionut

Image by graur razvan ionut

by S.J. White
published poet and Poem-A-Day poetry judge (2008)

I wrote this piece for the Cambridge Libraries after judging their Poetry Month, Poetry Contest, in 2008. It seemed that there were some difficulties experienced by contestants who were new to medium that could be eased by a few pointers. The hope was that it would improve the quality of entries and also make judging easier.

Most of us start by writing rhyming poetry. It seems as though it might be the easiest to write but it has its pitfalls. On any given subject it is surprising how few English words will rhyme. In consequence, we find the same old words used over and over. Too often the rhyme takes over the poem. The poet cannot get away with a line that would otherwise not have been used, except to satisfy the need to rhyme with a word in a previous line. Furthermore, rhyming poems must scan, that is to say, there must never be the feeling that one line is too long or too short. The experienced reader will quickly spot a line with an extra adverb or adjective that has been included to pad out its length. These tricks serve to trivialize the poem so that at best it becomes doggerel.

If you do write in rhyme, then try not to emphasize it. A slant or approximate rhyme will be less obvious than a perfect rhyme. Rhymes three and four lines apart will be less obvious than rhyming adjacent lines. Not every line needs to rhyme. The poet is free to begin and end a line anywhere; run-on lines can de-emphasize the effect of rhyme because a rhyme within a line is less obvious than an end rhyme. Keep in mind that the words are your slaves: you must never become a slave to your words. The poem should never exist for the rhyme. The rhyme should exist for the poem.

An alternative to rhyming poetry is free verse. Most contemporary poets write in free verse. This is poetry that doesn’t rhyme or have fixed rhythmic scheme, but is distinguishable from prose because of its subtle rhythm.

Blank verse is another poetic form. It is non-rhyming poetry but with a rhythmic scheme. Just as in rhyming poetry, the rhythm of each line is important. Whichever approach you take, ask yourself: do you have something novel to say, or do you have a novel way in which to say something? Whatever you decide to write, when it is written, this is one of the aspects it should have achieved.

Some poems do not lend themselves to being widely advertised, especially in contests. You may be going through a difficult time and by all means write about it. But poems of such a personal nature belong in your journal or your diary, perhaps to be shared with intimate friends, but they have no place in a poetry contest. Remember that your poem has to be judged on its merits as a piece of creativity.

Your poem is a sound bite. It is committed to paper through the technology of writing. When it is read aloud, it is resurrected and once more becomes a sound bite. Hey diddle diddle/The cat and the fiddle/The cow jumped over the moon, once had a meaning but what it once meant is now irrelevant. It has lasted through hundreds of years because it describes an intriguing nonsense event but more importantly, it has lasted because of the delightful sound and rhythm of the words. Not all poems need meanings and in those that do, the meaning may not be the primary reason why the poem works. Never underestimate sound.

“My love is like a red, red rose,” is a simile. “You are the promised touch of springtime,” is a metaphor. Not all poems need simile or metaphor but these powerful associations are more strings to a poet’s bow, and this is a reminder that we should avoid clichés at all costs.

The traditional way to write poetry is to capitalize each line but that is often disregarded in contemporary poetry. Some is written as prose would be written. Some is even written completely in lower case. In some poetry, grammar needs to be precise and correct, but in other styles it need not. Some poems need to be punctuated exactly like prose, others are not punctuated at all. All of this is left to the poet.

The worst person to vet your poetry is you. Before you submit it, give it to somebody with a good grasp of language to edit it for you. Spelling mistakes are unforgivable. If you have a computer, it helps if your poem is set in a legible type like Arial or Times Roman. And do not centre the lines unless you have good reason. Not withstanding the above, keep in mind contemporary poetry may be anything. Sometimes all the rules are broken successfully.

And to the very young poets we would say, disregard all this and write in any way you choose, for you have the advantage of us all: you are not burdened by experience.

Digest these guidelines but don’t be put off. If your poems are rejected don’t be discouraged. Remember that judging is subjective. Rejection is part of the game. It happens to the best of poets all the time. Successful poets just keep plugging away, for poetry is good for the soul.

And advice to all who write: read, read, read, read and read.

Stan White has published three books of poetry and numerous chapbooks. His poems have been published in the usual literary journals and anthologies. He is retired and lives with his wife in Brantford, Ont.

Photo Prompt


250 words or less. And go…

Is the Pen Mightier?

by Rob Quehl 

A few months ago, I met with some writers at a coffee shop. Most were participating in the National Novel Writing Month competition. Every one of them had their laptop in front of them. They type, type, typed away, before, during, and after the meeting, while my dinosaurian hand grasped a ballpoint.

Keeping notes in the 21st CenturyI own a laptop, and had tried to make the switch several times, hoping to save time by inputting directly into my computer. But for some reason, I always went back to my old way: writing the base story with pen on paper, then typing it in later. I didn’t know why it worked better; I just thought it was because I was a terrible typist. But recently, I found the difference aptly described in Susan Bell’s book: The Artful Edit.

Susan discusses Judith Freeman’s experiment in handwriting her novel Red Water. In the past, typing directly into her computer had made the writing process choppy.

Judith Freeman:

“When writing longhand, the brain and the hand are connected. Once you let an idea unfold, you keep unfolding it. Ink flows, ideas flow with it. When writing longhand, I am not tempted to constantly go back, scroll up, stop and reread. When you type, especially into a computer, you don’t give your imagination the chance to really follow things through.”

Susan Bell expands on the idea:

“Clean and professional looking, the typed page can induce the illusion that the sentences on it are finished and ready to be inspected. It is impossible to make that mistake with a hand scrawled note.”

In the same book, Tracy Kidder discusses this concept with respect to editing:

“One of my gripes about the computer is that it encourages a kind of editing that I don’t think is very useful. That is, you can move stuff around endlessly. I did a little editing for the late lamented New England Monthly. One writer was writing a piece that we really needed and all he kept doing was taking the same bankrupt paragraphs and moving them around.”

Amen! Exactly the same thing happens to me when I attempt to edit “tough spots” in my book. I stare at the screen, cut and paste, move it back again, switch words, but get nowhere until my eyes go buggy staring at letters on the screen. At this point, I’ve learned to turn off the computer, calm down, take a break, then go sit somewhere in a nice coffee shop, with nothing in front of me except a pen and a blank piece of paper. It’s only then that I can start from scratch and write something fresh that can solve the problem I’ve been stuck on. It takes time, but it always works.

So my intention is not to argue that you should come back and join me in the Stone Age, but only to consider handwriting as another option, especially if you reach a tough spot in your work that has you stumped.

Good luck.

Rob Quehl lives in Kitchener and is currently working on two novels

You May Be a Writer If…

girl with pencil on lip

photo by Ambro on

by Becky Alexander

You May Be  a Writer If…

  1. You sit up in bed from a sound sleep, grab the pen and notepad on your night table, and scribble down the brilliant thought that woke you up.
  2. If, having completed #1 above, you wake up in the morning, grab your notepad and read, “Bish that fidnit schiddle ploop,” which is absolute proof that our brains form thoughts before they transpose them to ‘word’ (pun intended).
  3. You have stacks of finely bound journals in your office.
  4. You continue to scribble on cheap yellow legal pads, and not those finely bound journals as they are’ too good to use’. You are saving them for something special…like what, your obituary?
  5. You are suddenly struck by inspiration, and need to write immediately.
  6. You find yourself driving in heavy traffic, searching frantically for a scrap of paper somewhere in your car, because inspiration has suddenly hit. Watch out for that tree.
  7. You own one of those spiffy little hand recorders, so you can record your inspiration while you drive.
  8. You keep saying to yourself, “I must buy one of those spiffy pocket recorders some time. And WHERE is that danged gas receipt?”
  9. You talk to yourself.
  10. When you are talking to yourself, you change voices, to the amazement of any family member who may walk in and find you delving into such pleasure. 

Becky Alexander is a Cambridge writer. Her work has been published in five countries, and has won hundreds of awards. She runs Craigleigh Press with her husband Dave Allen.


by Lee Anne Johnston

Image by kongsky |

Sometimes I think we writers take ourselves a little too seriously. I am a writer. I have much to say. I have much to say about the sad, inequitable state of the world. I know what I’m talking about, as I write murder mysteries.

While pondering about what to write for this blog, thinking of what might be helpful to other writers, I thought of my favourite moments in the Cambridge Writers Collective. You know what? They are the silly moments.

One writer almost never takes himself seriously, and his work is incredibly intricate and poised. Another acclaimed writer shared a short story last week that had me in stitches. I laughed like a goof. The power of words extends to pure pleasure and this is a good thing.

I’m going to continue writing my stories of death and family dysfunction, but I always keep in mind a lecture I attended by P.D. James, one of the most literate and prolific murder writers of all times. She said that murder mysteries are a modern extension of the medieval mystery plays which were produced and performed entirely by the Catholic Church. At the end of a murder mystery, the crimes have ended, the perpetrator is punished, and harmony in society is restored. Life, and writing can be hopeful and even touched by grace, whatever one perceives that grace to be. For me, it’s a giggle.

Lee Anne Johnston is a devoted member of the CWC and writes historical murder stories as well as varied flash fiction.

How Do I Count Thee? Let Me Count the Ways!

by Becky Alexander


I enjoy submitting work to various poetry contests: this is a way of ‘getting my work out there’, and also gives me the opportunity to win a bit of glory, and maybe even some cash! One thing I have learned is to check how the poem lines in such contest entries are counted.

The usual standard is that the actual lines in the body of the poem are the ones counted: the title and the space underneath are not usually considered in the line total. But sometimes they do! Some contests count the spaces between lines as well, and some contests do not.

I recently prepared work for a poetry contest of which I was not familiar. The rules stated ’25 line max.’ per category. But did that include the title, the space underneath the title, and stanza line breaks? There was no clarification for this, so I emailed the contest chair and asked directly. In this case, the lines in the actual body of the poem were the only ones counted.

Entering contests is an interesting and worthwhile activity for poets, but if your line count is wrong, your poem will be turfed, no matter how good it is. The first and foremost rule that all contest judges are asked to first check is that all rules were followed. I have judged many poetry contests in North America, and I can tell you firsthand that there is nothing harder than having to disqualify a brilliant piece of work because the lines were not counted correctly.

So do your homework. If the rules for a potential contest do not directly state how that group or society counts lines for its contests, find out, before you send.

Becky Alexander is a Cambridge writer. Her work has been published in five countries, and has won hundreds of awards. She runs Craigleigh Press with her husband Dave Allen.

An Homage to Words

by Paul de Souza

Words are powerful! Words are immortal, and with that knowledge comes the responsibility to choose them wisely. Once said, or written, they are difficult, if not impossible to take back.

In the Bible chapter Genesis, God said ‘Let there be light’, and there was light. Words are used as a catalyst for all creation. This is an important illustration of how influential they are. All the major religions have sacred words to live by, but to the Writer, all words are sacred.

Cambridge Arts Festival 2009

Our personal beliefs may differ, but we can likely agree that words contain great power. As Writers we communicate the worlds we create through prose or poetry, and feel empowered when we succeed. Indeed writers are heroic, the best of whom have changed history and enriched our lives in a myriad of ways. There are words of the law, dirty words, fighting words, and so on.
Language is indispensable. It remains with us from the beginning when we learn to talk, until the end when we draw our last breaths. Words can heal, or they can wound. How we use them is important.

Poetry is my specific area of interest. I always carry a piece of paper and a pen with me to capture any ideas, or observations that I may otherwise forget. Some of these one-liners or sketches may be developed into a poem, or, at the very least, be worked on more extensively later.

It’s fun to play with words that, at times, suggest a meaning that supersedes my imaginings. But I have never written anything of value without a lot of hard work. I write and re-write everything, often without satisfaction. Though, I have benefited from the critiquing that takes place at our Cambridge Writers Collective meetings. Receiving feedback and advice from so many different perspectives has been of great value, especially when it comes to determining if the work presented effectively communicates what I wanted to say.

What better way to describe poetry than a poem? So, here is a poem that I wrote.

Homage to Poetry

A poem is a clever mirror
the frame for a soul
deep and tricky
beneath the surface
of that shifting sea
fishing to show the truth
of spilled imagination
for your eye’s sake
we dance with delight
among words of colour
for a symphony of sentences

my tongue
your words
my words
our words
the water of life.

A past winner of Dorothy Shoemaker award for Poetry, Paul de Souza is presently working toward the goal of publishing a book of poetry illustrated with his artwork.

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

by Marcie Schwindt

photo by Marcie Schwindt

My goal this summer was the same as every summer—to finish one novel and start another, and for me, that meant it was time to hit the road. I love the hurry-up-and-wait rhythm of road trips, the exploding energy of the explorer’s spirit when the car finally stops and everyone pours out. Some years, the road trips are short getaways. Harbinger’s Kiss, for example, embodies the trek of the weekend cottager. This year, my family went further afield, soaking in Atlantic Canada for two whole weeks. I’m hoping to get two novels from that experience, though only one story has formed itself enough at this time. What inspires you to write? People, places, things?

Marcie Schwindt loves to read and write fast-paced, character and travel driven stories. She writes under the names Marcie Schwindt, Marcie Walker, and Amber Willow and can be found on Twitter @marcie8

WHAM! BAM! Poetry Slam!

by Bill Ashwell

photo by jscreationzs from

Think about performance poetry, and your imagination probably trips back to the 1950s and the days of smoke-filled coffee houses, beatniks in black turtleneck sweaters and black berets. You think of bongo drums, improvisational jazz, hip, cool, groovy. That was beat poetry.
That was then.

Performance poetry today in some ways is not much different. Hardcore performers/slammers/jammers will argue that simply reading the poem is just that: a reading. Performance poetry, they will argue, should push the boundaries of what poetry should be. Performance poetry should and often is, to some extent, a theatrical interpretation of that poet’s work, designed to elicit a response, a reaction, from the audience.

My first exposure to performance poetry was an Open Mic night in 1999 at some now long-defunct coffee shop in Elora. The poet-performer, as he read his original poems, bobbed and ducked and weaved around the room like he was in an aerobics class. I suppose this begs the question; does good poetry need a floorshow for validation, or can it (should it) stand on its own merit?

The trick is to not simply recite the piece, mumble a weak “thank you, thank you very much…” in to the mic and shuffle off the stage; BE THE POEM!! Read it with the same (or more) passion that inspired you to write it in the first place! Give it life, and emotion!

Once you’ve mastered the art of performance poetry, take it a step further and compete in a poetry slam. I know, you’re picturing a bunch of writers down on the floor wrestling with paper (and in some cases, probably losing the match). Slam Poetry is nothing like that. Slams are competitions at which poets read or recite original work. Selecxted members of the audience then judge these performances, and in some cases prize money is often awarded to the winning poet.

Performance poetry in the Region of Waterloo has witnessed a surge in popularity in the last decade. While coffee house reading series come and go, Slam Poetry organizations have emerged to take the reins in the realm of Spoken Word events in this area. The KW Poetry Slam is a monthly spoken word competition open to any and all in the Waterloo Region. The group stages monthly slam competitions and competes in slam competitions at the national level. Elsewhere, Guelph Spoken Word began promoting slam competitions a decade ago, but has grown to provide monthly spoken word workshops, in addition to its own slam team.

Consider this an invitation all closet poets, all storytellers, the teachers and the students and anyone who understands the importance of engaging, dynamic, fun art: come to a slam, read at an open mic, check out a poetry slam. Chances are you just might like it.

A Cambridge native, Bill Ashwell has been a CWC member since 1995.
In 2007 Bill was awarded the City of Cambridge’s prestigious Bernice Adams Memorial Award for Communication and Literary Arts. His poetry and prose have been published in several editions of the Writers Undercover Anthologies, The Cambridge Wartime Scrapbook, and most recently, for the Cambridge Libraries’ 2011 Poem-A-Day Contest. In 2001 Bill published Moments of Clarity, a collection of his poetry.

Bill also volunteers for many community Arts organizations, including the Cambridge Arts Festival.

Why I Write

by Wendy Visser

photo by Stuart Miles from

Recently, someone asked me why I write. My immediate quip was, “Well, it beats cleaning toilets or sticking my head inside a dirty oven.”

On later reflection, her question deserves a more in-depth response, so why do I write? And why is poetry my genre of choice?

It’s the challenge of covering the human condition from cradle to grave reducing it to a page. I can assume any identity. Let it travel to exotic places, let it loose in back alleys, or settle it humming softly before a mantel fireplace.

I can capture (eavesdrop on) strangers’ conversations. Put their words into stories and poems. I can kill and not be held accountable; champion the underdog, banish monsters from underneath the bed, or open closets and bring skeletons out to play. Dig in the trenches, and excavate the price of war from the sounds of buried sighs.

I love living dangerously− especially on paper.

Writing is a lonely, and often poorly-paid occupation. Sometimes ideas lead to words that fill the page as easily as a stroll in the park and at other times, it is like a trip to the dentist or a visit to your local blood donor clinic. But through it all, the urge to create is the driving force behind my need to write. It’s been said that everyone has a ‘book in them’. That’s like saying everyone can be an athlete or an actor, a doctor or a plumber and that is simply not true. People may have stories they want to share but the ability to attract an audience is an art that demands diligence and discipline.

Nothing else fulfills or satisfies or identifies me as much as completion and publication of my work. I live to write and write to live.

Wendy Visser is a long time CWC member. Her work has appeared in journals and anthologies nationally & internationally and many of her poems have received awards. She is the author of ‘Riding A Wooden Horse’,an award-winning collection of poetry and her second poetry book,’This Side of Beyond’ was launched in November of 2011.