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Jean Breeze: 'Poetry has been my life'

Published:Friday | January 17, 2014 | 12:00 AM
Jean 'Binta' Breeze
Jean Breeze performs at the Poetry Society of Jamaica fellowship on Tuesday, July 31, 2012, at the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts. - Contributed
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Michael Reckord, Gleaner Writer

Not so long ago, the life of Jamaican poet Jean 'Binta' Breeze was in danger and her British doctors faced a dilemma.

They needed to dissolve two clots on her lungs, but the blood-thinning medication administered for that purpose had already triggered a stroke - a second one. The first, two months earlier, had left Breeze in a coma for five days.

What to do, now?

Breeze made the decision. She would return home for a year. After six months in Sandy Bay, Hanover, a medical scan showed that the blood clots had disappeared. Not surprisingly, she has extended her stay.

Looking healthy and happy as I interviewed her last week, Breeze attributed the recovery to her mother's care, the sea air, and, generally, the country life she loves so much. We spoke just days before one of her increasingly rare performances in Jamaica.

It was given at the inaugural L'Acadco Dance Awards ceremony at Pollyanna Caterers, Stanton Terrace, St Andrew, on Sunday evening.

Breeze told me that she went to England early in 1985 to perform with the Britain-based Jamaican poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, then returned in September to begin teaching (mostly West Indian and African children) at Brixton College. However, Breeze found herself performing so much in the two years she was at the college that she quit to perform full-time.

L'Acadco Dance Awards

"So from 1987 I've been a freelance performer all over the world. I've toured all of Europe, including Britain and America, Brazil, Canada, Singapore, Japan and Africa," she said.

For many years, working mostly with Johnson and sometimes before audiences of 20,000 persons, Breeze was one of the big names among the performance poets. These included, she said, "Benjamin Zephaniah as a dub poet, and more conventional poets like James Berry, a Jamaican, John Agard, Grace Nichols from Guyana, and Merle Collins from Grenada".

Johnson produced her second album, Tracks, in 1991. In 1987, she had brought out Riddym Ravings and went on to make Hearsay (1994), Riding on de Riddym (1997), and Eena Me Corner (2010).

Breeze's poem Riddym Ravings established her "in literary circles", she said, while her dub poem Aid Travels With a Bomb went to number two on the New York Reggae Charts. Interestingly, Breeze revealed, the climb up the charts was helped by audiences misunderstanding the poem's subject.

When I asked if she is a dub or a literary poet, Breeze said she does not classify herself. Instead, she considers one of her most popular poems, Ordinary Morning, which has great musicality as well as literary features, to be the sort of poem she really wants to write.

I asked her to identify some defining moments of her career. Breeze spoke first of being invited, soon after arrival in England, to perform at an international book fair of Third World and radical books. That and similar readings, which involved being on the same stage as cultural icons like Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka, strengthened the politics of her work.

"I realised that, in writing for Jamaica, and rural Jamaica, I was touching on all the people in the Third World. I came to realise where my poetry belonged," she said.

Women's Poetry

"Then when the issue of Black politics faded for a while," she continued, "what came up in England was women's poetry. I became a part of a strong, solid feminist movement coming from Britain right through the '90s. But though I was in England, my writing was for the Caribbean and the Third World."

A third important moment for Breeze came when she left London and went to live in Leicester. There, she wrote her first British poem, Mi Duck, using a phrase that is popular in the English Midlands.

She lived in Leicester for 10 years before returning to Jamaica. While in Leicester, Breeze did a lot of community work with the city and surrounding Midlands. That work, she said, led to her being awarded the MBE (Member of the British Empire) "for services to Literature" in 2010.

It was her mother, Breeze said, who first taught her poems as a child - this while they were lying in bed in her mother's room. Because Breeze knew poems, she was often called on to recite at her school, first at primary school (and Jamaica Cultural Development Commission speech festivals from she was seven years old) and then at Rusea's High School.

Reciting poetry led to her writing it and, at age 11, she had two poems published in the school magazine. English classes helped to develop Breeze's writing skills ("I loved essays," she told me). In sixth form, she studied human and economic geography (taught by Brian Breeze, whom she later married), which she found "a fabulous class".

"It helped me to understand how my peasant grandfather and mother and aunt coming from the hills to market linked to rice farmers in Java," she said. "I knew who I was in the world."

Asked about her current performance itinerary, Breeze explained "I tour in March to April for International Women's Month and again in October to November for Black History Month in England. I base myself in London and tour from there."

Again living with her mother, Breeze describes a daily ritual that harks back to her childhood. "In the afternoon when she goes to lie down in her room, I lie down with her and we recite poems to each other," she said.

The difference is that the poems Breeze now recites are her own.