Harri Hertell: Making money with poetry?

“Performing poetry, aka spoken word, or stage poetry, is so popular around the world that successful stage poets have become almost like rock stars.”

(Photo: Teemu Juutilainen)


I’m sitting in the scenic bar of Hotel Torni in Helsinki with a well-known British stage poet. A few moments before we were at a club night which I host, and the poet was performing there. We had an audience of almost one hundred poetry-lovers. They all had paid an entrance fee equaling roughly the amount one pays for a movie ticket. Right now the performer is sitting high above the roofs of Helsinki, sipping Isokyrö gin, and wondering if the night ever falls in Finland.

After a short while the admiration of the capital’s night time skyline is interrupted by a text message. The poet then says he can’t wait for his scheduled flight home the following afternoon but must urgently return to his hotel and then immediately hurry to the airport. When I inquire what the hurry is, he tells me an international sport attire brand wants to shoot an advertising poetry video with him the very next day. While we had been chatting, the company had bought new flight tickets for him, and he said there would be a car with a chauffeur waiting for him at the airport in London. I am quite astonished, although I have heard similar accounts before from other international stage poets.

A few months later, I dine with another well-known foreign stage poet in a restaurant. Amused, he lists international corporations which, during the past year, have offered him a chance to write a poem for them. For example, a bank had promised a five figure remuneration for writing a single poem. An integral part of the offer was that he should perform his poem on video. The poet had declined, however, but he anticipated that some other poet was bound to jump at the deal.

The offer had been very tempting, he said, because one poem and a video reading would have covered almost a year’s worth of rent for his apartment. In Britain, besides, bursaries for writing poetry are few and far between, so many poets have to make a living through all kinds of performances, commissioned poems, and corporate projects. Not all stage poets publish books, so royalties from book sales are not necessarily forthcoming.

I find it unbelievable that performing poetry, aka spoken word, or stage poetry, is so popular around the world that successful stage poets have become almost like rock stars. They don’t necessarily pogo onstage or elicit screams from the masses; they just recite their own poetry in a captivating manner. They often have tens or maybe even hundreds of thousands of followers on social media platforms, and they perform to full houses all over the world.

Big international companies have recognized the market value of stage poets for some years already. Right now, commissioned videos of stage poets are all the rage, as the saying goes, and they are being paid remarkable sums. Is it a good thing that big corporations and poets join forces like this? There probably isn’t an unambiguous answer, but I, for one, am happy to see commercial potential undauntedly recognized in poetry. I wonder if this could be the case in Finland, too.

I have a small amount of personal experience in commercial poetry, if you will. I have written commissioned poems for Microsoft. A couple of years ago, we took a taxi and drove around the Helsinki metropolitan area to interview people, who laid out their ideas of a good day in the office. Based on these interviews, for each person individually, I wrote a kind of work profile in the form of a poem. The interviewees then read my poems on video, and the results were published on social media. So far, the most popular of these poems has had 10 000 viewings on Youtube.

Whether the campaign was a success for Microsoft I don’t know, but for me, it opened a new approach to literary work. Under a tight schedule, I wrote several commissioned poems, and the remuneration for a couple of days’ work was significant, considering my normal level of income. Last year, I was commissioned to write a poem for the City of Helsinki on the theme Christmas in the City. Here, too, I was free to write pretty much what I wanted as long as the overall theme was honoured.
I’m sure these kind of commissioned poems, published primarily through social media, have also reached new audiences. Those who have come upon my poems by happenstance have perhaps gone on to find some other things I have published. There’s no actual data to support this, but I think at least a few of those 10 000 viewers must have been inspired to visit a library, maybe even one of those few bookshops that still have modern poetry available. For me, these gigs have also offered an interesting, even financially tempting possibility to write poetry.

I do not think all poets enjoy being in the public eye. For many, performing may even be unpleasant. Not all poets, I believe, want to give interviews for the press, recite their work for large audiences, or write advertisements for big corporations. Even if the idea of commercial work may be repellent to some, recitals, videos and advertisements have already given important supplementary earnings and new readers for many poets. Meanwhile, the general public probably has lost some facet of the traditional mental picture of the lonely, introvert poet agonizing in the throes of creation in his or her sanctum.


Harri Hertell, b. 1985, is a poet, cultural producer, and spoken word artist from Helsinki. He has published five volumes of poetry, one guidebook on stage poetry, and three spoken word records. He has organized hundreds of poetry events in Finland, and performed on several European poetry stages. His poems have been translated in eight languages, and are currently being translated into Hebrew and Greek. For almost ten years, Hertell has organized poetry workshops and given courses in performing around the country.

Translation: Juhani Lindholm
Photo: Teemu Juutilainen

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