NEW YORK — It would be hard to imagine an unlikelier champion of classical poetry than Felix Dennis. A hard-living, self-aggrandizing Englishman, Dennis is best known in America for publishing Maxim, a magazine whose success more than a few media critics have cited as evidence of Western Civilization’s rapid decline.
But Dennis is quite serious about his writing, a pursuit he took up five years ago during a bout with hypothyroidism. His first book of verse, “A Glass Half Full,” is full of stylish doggerel, much of it humorous, some surprisingly poignant. It sold out its first printing in the U.K. and is now being published in the U.S. by Miramax Books — complete with a free CD of Dennis reading the poems. Earlier this week, Dennis kicked off the North American leg of his “Did I Mention the Free Wine?” tour with readings in Minneapolis and Chicago. (The name is not just a joke — Dennis opens bottles from his own cellar.) Tonight, he appears at Crash Mansion & Blvd. here to recite the poems that caused Tom Wolfe to dub him “a 21st century Kipling” (at least, that’s what the cover blurb says).
WWD: How much wine did you go through last night?
FD: Let’s see: There were about 350 people there, figure two glasses per…under a thousand glasses.
WWD: Do you find much overlap between the people who read your magazines and the people who buy your book or attend your readings?
FD: Well, I have so many magazines. “The Week” [his weekly magazine of excerpts from global media] is sponsoring this tour, and that’s because during the first British tour I did I noticed that a hell of a lot of people that read “The Week” came to the poetry readings. But as for the car magazines and the computer magazines and the lifestyle magazines, I don’t know how many of those readers would come. Poetry doesn’t have a huge following in the English-speaking world. You’re talking about a segment of a segment of a segment.
WWD: Your poems use strict meter and rhyme schemes.
FD: Traditionalist forms, yeah. Sestinas, villanelles, sonnets, quatrains, ballads.
WWD: Those forms have been out of style for decades.
FD: Since Ezra Pound edited “The Wasteland,” yeah.
WWD: So why do you choose to write that way?
FD: First of all, the poetry that I have read all my life, the stuff that I’ve stayed with and really enjoy, was written in those forms. Those forms have been around, some of them, for 500 years, and they’ve gone on working for all those years. It struck me as odd that all of that wisdom was tossed overboard in the great rush for free verse. I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to get on with free verse. The BBC spent three months getting the people of Britain to vote on their favorite 100 poems in the English language. There’s only one piece of free verse in the 100. Just because people have been writing that way since “The Wasteland” doesn’t mean many other people like it or can relate to it. I certainly don’t like it and don’t relate to it, so it was natural that when I started to write poetry that I would write the way I do, however idiosyncratic it may seem at this point.
WWD: Do you have a ritual that you follow when you write?
FD: Having never been a writer before — headline writer, maybe, but not a writer — I follow Mark Twain’s dictum that most inspiration comes from the application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair. I think that’s what most writers find difficult — they always find a million other things to do. Virtually every day, I sit down for four hours. Whether I manage to write half a line or whether I manage to write an entire sonnet, I’m still sitting there. I stick to that ritual.
WWD: Mick Jagger is quoted on the cover of your book saying, “I enjoy his poetry immensely.” How’d that come about?
FD: Mick Jagger has attended my poetry readings in Mustique [where Dennis has a house] and has even sent his kids on occasion. I give readings there to raise money for the public library. I was talking to him one day and I said, ‘Look, do you really like this stuff?’ and he said, ‘I really do. Sometimes I sit in bed and read them.’ And I said, ‘Well, give me a quote, then.’ And so he did, but he said, ‘You’ve got to do just this. Don’t make it up.’ So he gave me a very short quote on a piece of paper, and signed it, just in case.
WWD: You mentioned writing headlines. Have you found writing poetry has made you a better writer of headlines and cover copy?
FD: The only thing that skill does is it forces you to condense meaning into a very small number of words. You also have to know how to make it so that people want to go on and read the rest of it. The purpose of a headline is to first grab people’s attention, is it not, and then make them want to go on and read the rest of the piece. So it’s helped me to that extent, but there’s not a lot of crossover, to be honest with you.
WWD: How about between writing poetry and another of your hobbies, breeding rare pigs?
FD: There’s absolutely no correlation, except that breeding rare pigs does require immense amounts of patience. They’re wonderful creatures. They’re as bright as a button. They’re about three times brighter than a dog or a horse. And they’re cussed and difficult and very amusing. Each pig that comes into the world has its own personality, which is very easy for a human being to understand. I love breeding rare pigs because I don’t want to see these breeds vanish. Maybe there’s your correlation. Just like I don’t want the art of writing a villanelle to vanish, I don’t want to see all the Middle Whites in England vanish when we’ve been breeding them for the best part of 600 years.