Multi millionaire Felix Dennis is embarking on his biggest ever poetry tour. He talks to Alison Jones about his battle with throat cancer and how his work is being taken seriously by the literary establishment

Felix Dennis is searching for a metaphor.

“Ever since my arm wrestling bout with throat cancer...”

It isn’t working. It is the wrong part of the body.

“It doesn’t sound right. I don’t think you can arm wrestle with cancer,” he says.

Maybe it had you in a head lock? I tentatively suggest.

There is no pussyfooting around the publisher’s latest brush with death.

He has even called his round of poetry shows The Cut Throat Tour.

It has a buccaneering romanticism but is also gorily descriptive of the treatment he had to remove the tumour that was discovered in January 2012.

He followed this with radiotherapy that stripped out his mouth, leaving it “like a child’s”, unsullied by decades of abuse from drugs, drink and heartburn-inducing meals.

“I used to love hot spicy food and wine but now anything that is spicy or acidic I can’t take it in my mouth.

“I poured a weak whisky and soda and I thought my mouth was going to explode. I had to rush to the refrigerator and get a load of milk to swill it out.”

But you can’t keep a good hedonist down and he is attempting to wean himself back onto wine by diluting it heavily with water.

“I think by spring of next year I will be on one part wine and one part water. It breaks my heart to put water in it but I have got a wonderful cellar – hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of wine – and I have no intention of clearing it out,” he says defiantly.

“To make sure I drink as much as my friends I just consume about four times as much liquid as they do,” he adds, roaring with laughter.

If Felix has a motto it is probably ‘nothing succeeds like excess’.

Which goes part way to explaining why, to celebrate his fight back from an illness that has sloughed off his weight and sapped his stamina – “I don’t know if I am cured and I won’t know for years. You have to live with that every day, as do the vast majority of people who are in remission” – he has embarked on probably his biggest ever poetry tour.

Felix Dennis
Felix Dennis

It started on Monday and will cover 30 dates between now and the autumn, appearing at the Crescent Theatre in Birmingham on Tuesday, the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, on June 28, and The Hub Theatre, Coventry, on October 17.

Though he has resumed his working life – he is talking to me from New York where he is attending to one of his many internet companies – he is uncertain as to how he will cope with such a gruelling schedule.

“I won’t be talking a lot on the days when I will be performing. The best thing will be for me just to shut up, which is kind of difficult,” he says, chuckling again.

The publicity describes it as “the poetry event of the year”, but Felix is not a man much given to false modesty.

In a conversation about ashtrays – which as a former nicotine addict he still leaves scattered about his homes so as not to deter other people from smoking because of his cancer “you can’t get holier than thou about it” – he offhandedly mentions that his house in Mustique was bought from David Bowie.

It will certainly be entertainment on a rock star scale with videos and music to accompany the verse, as well as the rather good glasses of wine that are the gimmick he first came up with to entice audiences to stay and listen.

“This is serious poetry, probably the only thing in the world I take seriously. But my honest aim is to give people a really great night out.

“So this isn’t your average poetry reading at the back of the library with nine people and some warm Chianti.

“It is probably the frustrated R&B singer in me. When I was a kid I thought I was going to be the next Mick Jagger or something.”

In the poetry world, Felix is achieving a Jagger-like status. Already wealthy through his publishing business (notoriously started with Oz before moving on to personal computer magazines then Maxim, Viz and The Week), when the muse first moved him at the start of this Millennium, after a near fatal thyroid-related illness, this people’s poet thought nothing of hopping on a private jet to travel to readings.

His showmanship stuck in the literati’s craw, he says.

“The problem is you are not meant to be a serious poet if you are a rich guy. It is difficult for some people to get over that. There was a very strong feeling in the beginning that I was playing at this, that I was a dilettante. I was cross about that.”

They also disliked his “old fashioned” style of writing which is “based on the last 500 years of forms created by English poetry – sonnets, sestinas, ballads, stanzas”.

“Ever since Ezra Pound edited The Waste Land for TS Eliot, the whole of university teaching, the whole of literature took the pendulum and swung it away from very stilted rhyming Georgian verse right the way to free verse, and swung it so hard it has never come back.

“The problem with free verse is very few people write it well and then they can’t understand why nobody wants to buy it or listen to it.

“People want to read Keats, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson but when you say this in a lot of universities – and I read at universities – they go ballistic. They cannot bear to hear this.

Felix Dennis
Felix Dennis
 

“I say it is no use pretending. You have taken us all in the wrong direction. You have lauded to the skies this peculiar poetry that no one wants to listen to and the public have been voting with their wallets.

“When I first started, a very upmarket arts magazine spent a whole page accusing me of single handedly dragging poetry back to the stone age,” he confides gleefully.

“I don’t take any notice. I get on the road with The Cut Throat Tour and get people to laugh and cry their heads off.”

Felix spends hours a day working on his poetry, in between seeing to his business interests and his other great passion, which is planting trees. He is trying to restore some of the woodland the country has lost by creating the Heart of England Forest in Warwickshire, where he has an estate, expanding it by 300 acres a year.

He had the audience from the get-go, as his poetry books sales attest. Now there are signs he is gradually winning the establishment over too.

“I am now being anthologised. The other day I was in a lovely anthology with people like Robert Frost and William Shakespeare. And the Bodleian library is now collecting all my papers and my electronic work, so they get all the early versions of the poems.”

His illness has given him renewed focus. Just turned 66, he is aware that time is not on his side, even if he had lived a life conducive to good health and longevity, which he has not.

Like George Best, he used to believe that any percentage of his time and money not spent on women and drink – and in Felix’s case hard drugs – was wasted.

“I have misbehaved over the years,” he admits, rather understating it.

“The facts of the matter are that I did all the sex and drugs and rock and roll and I did huge amounts of it.

“I really do not know how many people I went to bed with. I can’t even remember. I don’t even remember being there.

“I know I spent $100 million messing around. Can you imagine that? I was completely out of my box when I was running a multi, multi-million dollar company.

“In this world sometimes you get what you deserve. And if you mess around like I did and you take drugs and you drink like a fish and you smoke 50 cigarettes a day for 49 years, what do you think is going to happen?”

He had already abandoned the drugs by the end of the 1990s, opting to go cold turkey rather to rehab.

“I was 50 years old and I was behaving like a juvenile delinquent. It was idiotic, pathetic, it had to stop.

“I smashed up all the equipment and looked in the mirror and said ‘Well, goodbye to all that’ and that was the end of that. I had messed around for too long.”

Cigarettes remained a vice.

“I was still smoking when I was going round Harley Street in mortal terror looking for what treatment I was going to take.”

Yet when the surgeon who was to cut his throat requested he give up he hurtled on to that wagon.

Felix Dennis
Felix Dennis
 

“I gave it up overnight. I always knew I could stop smoking. All the people that know me and work for me rolled their eyes whenever I used to say it but terror is the best (nicotine) patch.”

Maybe his turn for the cultural, his philanthropy and nature-nurturing are his attempts at karmic balance. At giving something back for the many literal highs he has experienced.

But he has been given another chance at life and Felix is not a man to waste opportunity.

“I was born lucky. Felix – the word means lucky. And happy.

“Once again I have stared the old reaper in the face. He has stared back, shrugged and, hopefully, walked away this time.

“Of course he won’t walk away every single time. Sooner or later it is over. But right now I feel great.

“I have got a wish list like everybody else, but I have done a lot of things.

“Now I want to enjoy the benefit of my poetry. I want to get out there, get on the road with a bunch of people and have a really good time.”

* Felix Dennis’ 30 date Did I Mention The Free Wine? The Cut Throat Tour is on now. For information and tickets, go to www.felixdennis.com            

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