Money still makes his world go round, millionaire poet Felix Dennis tells Alison Jones .
“If I am going to have sex then I am going to have more sex than anybody ever had. If I am going to take narcotics then I am going to take more narcotics than anybody ever did," declares Felix Dennis, with a rich chuckle.
“And if I am going to write poetry then I am going to get more people to read it.
“It is the same sad old squalid story but there we are. I can’t seem to stop it,” he adds, unrepentantly.
This latter-day Lord Byron, by day a multimillionaire publisher, will be entertaining a couple of thousand people at Stratford-upon-Avon this weekend over two evenings of wine, women and stanzas.
His Beauties & The Beast theatre tour is an event more akin to a rock show than a dust-dry reading of earnest verse, with giant video screens and sound and lighting effects.
The size of the venue prompted him to enlist the added attractions of Escala (beauty to his beast), the all-girl electronic string quartet who were finalists on Britain’s Got Talent, as well as offering his customary free wine.
Felix began offering audiences a tipple to entice them along when he first started performing his poetry throughout the UK in 2002, embarking on what he unashamedly calls his Did I Mention the Free Wine tours.
“It was really to draw people in. It worked exceedingly well, especially in the days before I started to make them pay for tickets. Whether I needed to do it or not I will never find out.
“I have always thought that bribery has had a very bad rap and works astonishingly well,” he declares. “I’m all in favour if it, within reason.
“The only way I’ve managed to keep 22 of my 23 godchildren from becoming smokers is by telling them if I find they’re smoking then there is no 21st birthday present, they won’t be getting a little car or anything and they are cut out of the will.
“I have only failed with one of my godchildren. The black sheep. He passed his 21st and did not get his present and I am seriously considering cutting him out of the will. He has got to pack it up,
“He looks at me and says ‘You are a total hypocrite because you are sitting there smoking’.
“I say ‘I don’t care. This isn’t about me. It is about you’. I know I am a hypocrite, I have even written a poem that I’m a hypocrite,” he laughs.
Felix seems to combine a reckless disregard for his own well-being combined with a bear-like protectiveness for those who are close to him.
In a handy guide to himself on his website, he points out he once had a harem of 14 lovers and concubines – and when he disbanded it gave most of them pensions.
He cares little about criticism of himself, in fact he seems to revel in it, putting the most scandalous headlines up online and mixing scathing comments from the poetry establishment with fulsome praise from the great and the good.
He is particularly fond of one sneering salvo from an editor who rejected a request to publish his work, histrionically declaring: “I have been the poetry editor of this imprint for over a quarter of a century and I will resign, quite simply I will resign, if we are forced to publish this…this populist rubbish.
‘‘It will contaminate our reputation and hurl modern poetry back into the dark ages. Never, never, never!”
“I think: ‘Yes, and 10 people in the world have ever read your poetry and hundreds of thousands have read mine, so yah boo sucks to you,” he recalls, laughing uproariously.
It is safe to assume he doesn’t anticipate being invited to be Poet Laureate any time in the near future even though, as he points out, all of his poetry is being curated online by the Bodleian Library and he can count the likes of Stephen Fry and Tom Wolfe among his admirers.
“The fact is I am treated with grave reservation by many poets.
“I understand why. First of all I only started writing poetry about 10 years ago, so I have not paid my dues.
“Secondly I do not live in a garret and have no intention of living in one. Often on my poetry tours I fly from venue to venue in a Gulfstream jet, and I make no apologies for that. So that doesn’t go down well.
“Most important of all I do not write free verse. Ninety per cent of all the verse written today is what is called free verse. I write the same forms that have been used for 500 years and that means learning a craft, and that is not welcome among the druids-in-residence of modern poetry.”
Though he is completely honest about his mission to entertain people, he is very serious about his work.
Since he started writing poetry while recovering from serious illness in hospital, penning his first on a post-it, his output has been prolific and his muse seemingly inexhaustible.
“I am trying to make people laugh and cry, I am even trying to frighten them occasionally, and I do.
“My readings are a theatrical performance and I make no apologies for that. It’s probably why my poetry books sell in tens of thousands as opposed to either the tens or tens of hundreds of most other living poets.
“I really do want to bring poetry back to the mainstream of British entertainment.”
He writes for three hours a day and gets “grumpy” if he doesn’t.
It is typical of his all-or-nothing approach to life, whether it is building a publishing empire or developing a drug habit.
In an example of multi-tasking which should probably never be held as a convincing argument against drug taking, he successfully launched Maxim magazine back in the mid-90s, first in the UK, then conquering the US and the world, while in the throes of a $10,000-a-day crack-cocaine addiction.
His decision to give it up seems to have been similarly full-on. Not for him a public descent into the gutter before rehabilitation.
“It was beginning to interfere with my life and I wasn’t having any of that, so I just stopped. Cold turkey.
“That’s it. There is no other way that I know of. I may not be a good advertisement against it but I am not going to pretend it was something else.
Even in his philanthropy he is competitive.
“It is slightly annoying to find that virtually everything I do in my life is an addiction where I go over the top.
“If I start planting a few trees suddenly I have to plant the biggest native forest in England,” he says, referring to the 2,000 plus-acre Heart of England Forest, formerly known as the Forest of Dennis, in Warwickshire, where he has a home (one of many around the world)
He hopes that it will cover 30,000 acres within a century.
“I recognise that what I am doing is utterly artificial. It is not how forests grow, but no other individual is planting one.
"I want Birmingham to claim, long after I am dead, that the Heart of England Forest is the largest native broad leaf forest in England. Full stop. So the people in Epping can go and suck on that!”
He bought his bloody-mindedness to bear on the business of making money after, as the co-editor of Oz magazine, he was famously imprisoned in 1971 when found guilty of obscenity.
Following his release he set up his magazine publishing company.
“The establishment ganged up on me and my hippy friends and chucked us in jail and it was only by a miracle the Court of Appeal let us out.
“The fact they prosecuted us was an outrage. It was the only cause for which John and Yoko ever marched in the streets of London.
“At the end of it I thought ‘I’ve just been through a year of hell, banged up with rapists and murderers for no reason. If I’d had a lot of money this wouldn’t have happened’. I swore myself an oath that if coin will serve then I will go and get it.
“I turned my hand to magazines, not for any particular love of them. I wanted something I knew I could do well and make money.”
And make it he has. The Sunday Times Rich List put him in 153th place (in the UK) with a fortune of £500 million.
He knows it is probably a comfortable enough cushion against the slings and arrows of life – and to weather the $100 million cost of his “lost decade” which he spent “partying like a lunatic” – yet he still he must make more.
“Surely five or 10 or 20 million would have done? How much do you need? That is a question I sometimes I ask myself, but I notice that doesn’t stop me attempting with every fibre of my being to make a few more million.”
He actually wrote an “anti-self help manual” called How to Get Rich, telling people not to try it themselves.
Needless to say, it was a best-seller.
“The only way you get rich is by working your arse off and that means you are not going to pay attention to having what other people call a meaningful life. You forget to have children or if you have them you ignore them. You wreck all your relationships. You start to indulge in idiocy or bad behaviour. It is very corrosive, this mad rush for money.
“I am lucky really that I have always had other deep compulsions other than the one just to make money...”