Felix Dennis on sex, drugs... and poetry
Multi-millionaire publisher Felix Dennis has turned a lot of trees into magazines in his time. Chris Bourn meets him to find out how he's now paying them back in verse. Photography Rob Greig
Ever since he pensioned off his harem of women (yes, he really used to have one of those) and kicked his crack habit (he had one of those, too) in the '90s, Felix Dennis has been concentrating on rather more genteel pursuits: gardening and poetry. For the famously extravagant magazine publisher, though, everything has to be done on a Caligulan scale. So gardening means planting an entire forest - the ambitious Heart of England Forest Project in which Dennis is trying to refurnish 30,000 acres of Warwickshire with native broadleaf woodland - and poetry means becoming one of the UK's top-selling authors of verse while haring off around the world giving recitals. His latest book, 'Tales from the Woods', sees him combine these two endeavours in a new collection of resolutely pastoral poems which eulogise trees and the British countryside.
You came to poetry late in life…
'Very late. Over the last ten years I've basically put myself through college, writing or studying poetry for three hours a day. Sad, I know, but there we are. Twenty years ago there would've been 14 girls with their clothes off snorting cocaine, and we'd have been up for 36 hours at a time - and now I'm sitting by a log fire reading books on poetics.'
What made you it take it up?
'Poetry was a way of dealing with my inability to cope with boredom - same with the tree planting. I substituted them for sex. Because I really was mad about sex; it was fantastic: several times a day with loads and loads of different girls. Ultimately futile! But great fun at the time. And I'd been taking drugs since the '60s, like most of my generation. But once I'd ended all that, I had to do something. Something had to fill this aching void.'
If you hadn't hit upon poetry, what would be occupying your time?
'I'd be dead. From overindulgence and addiction to other things.'
Fair enough. The poems in 'Tales from the Woods' are all in a very traditional style. Why the insistence on structure and metre in your verse?
'I am writing very serious poetry in very serious poetic forms, because in my view insufficient people are writing sonnets and villanelles and sestinas and so on. Poetry is one of the oldest of all art forms, and one of its powers for shamans and tribal leaders was the mnemonic… Without recall, without memory, it is in my view poetry of little consequence. And it's so bloody easy to write free verse. So I decided if I'm going to write poetry, I'm going to do it the hard way.'
Hasn't your wealth and background in publishing made finding success as a poet much easier for you than for other writers, though?
'It took me two years to get my poetry published; I was thrown out of innumerable publishers again and again. It was terribly difficult. You're not supposed to have far too much money and be known as an entrepreneur and be able to write poetry. I accept that my money can help me market the book. But you absolutely cannot get people to sit down and spend their time reading or listening to your poetry, and it doesn't matter if you're Bill Gates. It's taken ten years to get people who count - like Tom Wolfe and Stephen Fry - eventually to read my poetry and then say, “Yeah, actually, this is great.” Money doesn't buy it. It actually gets in the way!'
But when you see quotes of praise from Stephen Fry and Tom Wolfe on your book jacket, the assumption is that these people are mates of yours.
'Okay, I've never had a drink with Tom Wolfe and I've never had lunch with him. I've never gone to dinner with Stephen Fry; I've never spent any time in his company other than when we've met a couple of times for professional or charitable reasons. That's it. If you added the amount of time I've spent with those two gentlemen together we'd be in single-digit minutes.'
Are you planting your forest out of remorse for turning so many trees into magazines over the years?
'[Pulp for Dennis Publishing's magazines] comes from the best managed forests in the world, in North America and Finland, and they're an utterly neutral resource. So I have no remorse at all - it'd be like having remorse for making bread. I plant trees because I honestly love planting trees. And I'm not remotely interested in saving the planet. The planet doesn't require saving, and actually hasn't asked Greenpeace to save it.'
What's your view on climate change?
'The climate has been changing since there was a climate. I don't know what we're so excited about. What we're really doing is we're giving a bunch of the worst types of shits a chance to create their new religion. These are the new Jesuits… I will meet them on the barricades! No one is going to tell me I can't fly my bloody helicopter to my poetry readings!'
Your poems about trees often present them in anthropomorphic terms. Do trees have souls?
'Sitting here talking to a journalist, the answer surely must be no. Walking in woods on my own, except for a dog (which I do a lot of)… I'm not so sure. Though if you put me on oath you'd have to get it out of me with hot pincers.'
Will you plant a tree by your grave?
'I've got this sodding great rock - a 16ft sarsen stone - and they're carving an amusing poem on it, the last line of which is: “And now my trees spit in death's eye.” And by the side of the rock, in the middle of a wood - it's already all decided - there'll be a beautiful oak tree, which will suck all my juices out. So I shall turn into my oak tree.'
'Tales from the Woods' is out now, published by Ebury at £9.99. Felix Dennis starts his poetry tour, 'Did I Mention the Free Wine?', on Tue Sept 21. For tickets and info see www.felixdennis.com.