'The Third Wife' Wins First Prize

The winners of the National Poetry Competition 2007 were announced at a prize-giving party at Dr Johnson's House on 23 March. Here Lisa Roberts talks to first prize-winner, Mike Barlow.

The judges of the National Poetry Competition 2006 – John Burnside, Lee Harwood and Alice Oswald – had the task of choosing one poem out of over 10,000 to be the overall winner. That single poem has to overcome huge odds to be the chosen one and it wasn't just the number of entries that made the selection so challenging this year. Having made their initial shortlists (over a period of ten weeks) of 25 poems each for the final decision on judging day, the judges found they had shortlisted very few of the same poems. This implied that a possible conflict of opinion may have lain ahead. But on the contrary, the decision was reached early and without any raised voices. They awarded first prize to Mike Barlow, for his poem, 'The Third Wife'.

I spoke to Mike Barlow about his poem shortly after he had received the good news. 'The Third Wife' (published in Poetry Review, p. 121) has a delightful, wry ambiguity. Who are the three wives, I wondered, and have there been three Mrs Mike Barlows?

"I've not had three wives", he assured me. "Had I done so, I doubt I would have written about it!" But explaining who the three wives are is less easy: "I have a problem, really, because although the poem wrote itself quite easily I couldn't make clear sense of it until afterwards, in fact I'm still making sense of it", he says. But he views this as a positive thing. "I'm very interested in writing poems where the meaning isn't absolutely clear and there isn't a definite interpretation. I want the reader to decide for themselves."

Mike did offer the reader some clues, though. "I suppose the symbolic narrative of the poem is that these three different wives represent different aspects of a relationship or marriage", he explains. "The first wife is the young relationship where the couple is very involved with each other. Yet it's very frail, and suddenly she's gone to 'Valparaiso'," he explains.

The second wife is based on a ship's figurehead of a woman clutching a bible which Mike saw stuck on the beach during a stay in the Shetlands. To him this represented the "hardness of idealism and strong values" with "her precious bible clutched in a manicured hand".

Did this striking image inspire him straight away? "No, this image dwelled inside me and suddenly the woodenness of it, the uncompromising nature of the figure just seemed to rise inside me when I was writing this poem", he says. "It just found its way in, as so many things do, like Valparaiso. I haven't a clue what connection I've got with Valparaiso yet it's found its way in there!" And who is the third wife? "I can't say much about the third wife really, she just came as a natural conclusion. It seems to me to be about letting things be," he says.

'The Third Wife' is a persona poem. Did creating characters allow him to explore things less self-consciously? "Yes: it's a way of getting away from what Michael Donaghy referred to as 'my little life'. I've done a lot of writing about my own life but actually I don't want to do that very much anymore", he explains. "Ideally I'd like to write a poem and get the feeling, afterwards, that someone else could have written it."

This delight in abstraction is something Mike also relishes as a practising visual artist. "My favourite artists are Brian Winter, Peter Lanyon and his son Matthew Lanyon, and Ben Nicholson. I'm excited by abstract ideas of space and colour and interesting texture, where you have to spend some time dwelling in the picture, enjoying the shapes and working them out."

It's sometimes suggested that poems which win the National Poetry Competition are a one-off and not representative of a poet's work. But would it be right to say this about 'The Third Wife'? "It is typical, in a way," he says. "I like to write symbolic poetry and I really enjoy exploring parallel possibilities in life". And is a competition-winning poem a one-off? "I'm aware of what a variable thing taste is. It's a matter of the poem finding the right reader, and in the case of competitions, the right judges. It could be argued that pamphlet competitions display more of the individual's skill". "But," he continues, "a poem is not an isolated entity. I see it as part of a continuing process embracing all the experiences, ideas and influences the poet carries around."

Of course, the winning poem is selected by different poets each year. Had he read the judges' work in preparation? "I was particularly familiar with the work of John Burnside and Alice Oswald", he says. "I'm familiar with Lee Harwood but not as closely. As a group of judges they really appealed to me because they represent a wide range of different ways of writing."

Mike is no stranger to competition success, having won the Ledbury Competition, 2005, and the Amnesty International competition, 2002. His first collection, Living on the Difference won the Poetry Business competition in 2003 and was shortlisted for the Jerwood Aldeburgh prize. Has winning the 'National' altered his ambition for his writing at all? "Oh, it's a bit early to ask me – I'm still absorbing it," he says. "I don't think it's changed my ambitions. It's a very affirming experience. I've known friends who have won major competitions and it's a very good feeling when you are in a group of people and one of them has won something like this because you feel this happens to real people, to people you know."

Active on the poetry scene around the UK, Mike has read at the Troubador in London, the Literature Festival in Lancaster (where he is based) and the Aldeburgh Festival, among others. In the summer, he will be able to add the Ledbury Poetry Festival to the venues at which he's appeared when he reads with Fiona Sampson at an event on 6 July to celebrate the National Poetry Competition, the summer issue of Poetry Review and Fiona Sampson's new collection (find out more at www.poetry-festival.com).

Perhaps, in a few years time, when Mike re-reads 'The Third Wife' and maybe thinks, "that's really interesting, I wonder who wrote that," he'll be delighted to realise that it's his winning poem for the National Poetry Competition 2006.

Poetry News Spring 2007