Penny Ashton aka Hot Pink is a force to be reckoned with... award-winning performance poet, comedy diva and champion of true poetics. RENEE LIANG caught up with Penny ahead of Poetry Idol at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

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RENEE: So, tell me about Poetry Idol. How did you dream it up?

PENNY: I have been to loads of poetry slams around the world and the same things always irritated me about them:

a) There are always some terrible poets. (Which I acknowledge is a fundamental need in most cases as how else can people begin and get better, I am all for open mics and slams including everyone for the most part but when you are doing a showcase slam the wheat and chaff need to be divided.) So I therefore audition people.

b) The judging is so random as audience members do it and often these members are easily swayed by overly emotional yet shite poetry etc...

So I decided to have judges who know about poetry and performance to decide through to the last round, then have the entire audience vote for the winner as it is the full democratic process to reflect the entire room.

I also use the word Idol as it immediately indicates the nature of the piece, that there will be judges who make comments, that it is a competition. And that the audience votes too.

Also my friend ran an event like this in London, slightly different though. He had auditions, picked ten poets and they did 10 minutes each, then the audience decided. So I crossed his idea with a normal slam and voila, my idea!

R: This will be the third Poetry Idol?

P: Second in Auckland. First one ever was at Christchurch Writerís Festival in 2006.

R: Whatís been the response so far?

P: Better than I could have imagined! It seems as soon as you add a level of competition to a poetry event many many more people come to watch!

In Christchurch it was packed, and in Auckland we had to turn away over 100 people last year Ė it was like a poetry riot! The event itself was brilliant, with established poets shining and new poets coming through to take 2nd and 3rd places.

There was a definite raucous feel and when Shane Koyczan performed the place went mental. Heís an amazing poet with a huge presence onstage and the audience lapped up spoken word, many of them were new to it for the first time.

R: So what have you got planned for the rest of this year?

P: Two weeks after Poetry Idolís rapturous return I head off to LA. Iím only there for a couple of days but am doing Poetriís Open mic that he runs. Then Iím heading over to NYC for 5 days and am performing a feature at the Bowery Poetry Club with Ishle Yi Park, Shappy Seasholtz and Cristin OíKeefe Aptowicz. Then the Montreal Fringe Festival, the Ottawa Fringe and Wakefield Piggyback Fringe.

R: Wow...

P: Then a Toronto One Night Stand in a video store at 12.15am, then Regina Fringe, Winnipeg Fringe, Saskatoon Fringe, Edmonton Fringe, Victoria Fringe, and finally Vancouver Fringe.

R: So thatís some of the international Ďtemplesí of performance poetry?

P: Yeah the Bowery absolutely, and Poetri runs Spoken Funk in LA which has a big following.

R: Are you doing comedy or poetry or a bit of both? Is it a new show?

P: Itís comedy and poetry Ė not strictly a new show no, a Ďbest of.í A revamp of my Adelaide 2006 and Edinburgh 2005 shows.

R: So describe your style, if it can be described...

P: I am describing myself over there as Eminem crossed with Cosmopolitan magazine crossed with The Wiggles. I do funny spoken word about a single urban girlís existence Ė I usually say ĎPlayschoolí style but am not sure how that translates.

R: Whatís the response overseas to your work and how is that different to the response from NZ audiences?

P:The response overseas is the same as it is here for the most part. When I write shows now, I am very mindful of the fact it needs to translate internationally. I donít have many NZ centric poems, as if you do a show in New Zealand, you may only get to do it five or so times in each centre. But if you take a work out of the country it can be done over and over. I did Hot Pink Bits 100 times from Jan 2007 to April 2008.

R :Your work is funny, often confrontational, confessional...

P: It is confessional as I like the laugh of recognition, the one that goes, ďOh I do that too.Ē Itís self-deprecating and people relate. But I am getting angrier about things a little too, and a little more political.

R: Is that the influence from overseas?

P: Actually itís the influence of doing more social commentary on the TV and radio and therefore forcing myself to become more aware on issues.

R: I think NZ commentary needs more anger. Itís easy to be complacent in Godzone. But itís a misplaced complacency.

P: Or the anger we get is ďItís all the governmentís fault.Ē

R: Yes. So, how did you start doing spoken word?

P: Well, I had gotten back from living in London and got into a play in Auckland (I moved up here from Christchurch after I got back from three years in London doing shitty jobs). That went well but afterwards I was trying to do the actor thing and getting frustrated.

I started producing and publicising other peopleís works Ė I did a national tour of a play called Little Che. It went brilliantly over two years and Paolo and I managed to do well out of it, but at every opening night of anything Iíd produced, I just wanted to push everyone off the stage!

And then one night I sat down at my computer and just got so frustrated about not performing, and thought that maybe I could write. I knew I could perform and this poem came out. It was only in 2000 and Iíd never done it before, and it wasnít bad, so I wrote another called All Men Are Bastards, and that was good.

And then I kept writing stuff for two years and then at the Auckland Writer and Readerís Festival in 2001 I got up at the open mic (which I have now run the past two years) and read. I was really nervous so my hands shook and thereafter I vowed to never read a poem again.

And then I did a Temple open mic Ė and used the Hot Pink poem from my first gig, and not long after I did a Raw night at the Classic Comedy Bar.

So, my first spoken word gig must have been 2001, then Temple April 2002, the Classic May 2002, first solo show November 2002, Billy T Comedy Award Nominee 2003 Ė all a bit bloody quick! I did Edinburgh fringe festival 2004 Ė I donít fuck around.

R: And youíve gone from that to maintaining a career as performance poet?

P: Yes and no. I make most of my money from corporate improv and voice work.

R: Itís pretty impressive, especially in NZ. Most performers, even successful ones, have day jobs.

P: You have to have a million fingers in pies in the arts in this country to survive. But the comedy has become a higher and higher percentage of my income as the years pass. It can get lonely tapping away at home at times. Itís funny, I havenít written a hell of a lot in the past two years. As I tour more, I produce more, which means I write less. I am hopeless at writing on tour.

R: Youíre spending four months overseas this year...

P: Six...

R: Do you get paid on tour, or is it just the income you make from shows?

P. Itís just income from my shows, which is relatively nerve-wracking!

Often Iíll be away for two months at a time and just break even as I did in Oz this year. But I break even. The thing I love the most about the touring is the friends. I know heaps of poets in the UK especially, and more and more in the US too.

R: Any last words of wisdom for people who want to follow the same path?

P: To sound all Hallmark, feel the fear and do it anyway. To go from shaky hands in 2001 to an Edinburgh show in 2004 is pretty cool. When I went to Edinburgh I felt like I was jumping off a cliff and I wasnít entirely sure my parachute was attached. Turns out it was.