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Life's a breeze

JAMAICAN SENSATION: Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze

AFTER DECADES of penning poetry in England, Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze made the decision to create her latest collection in Jamaica.

Considering that much of her work is about her beloved Caribbean homeland, it seems almost unfathomable that she hadn’t before returned to her country of birth to pen one of her creative collections.

But as the saying goes, ‘nothing happens before its time’. And when the time did come for Breeze to go ‘back home’ to pen her latest offering, she did it in truly Jamaican fashion – sitting on a veranda.

Aptly titled The Verandah Poems (‘verandah’ with the ‘h’ tends to be the favoured spelling in Jamaica), the collection sees Breeze sharing musings on everything from the evolution of traditional gender roles to the reality of Jamaican independence – and even the men who have propositioned her!

In Priming – the first poem in her latest collection – Breeze tells the story of a man who has long been trying to win her affections by picking her up in the morning to take her to the beach.

But with the poet wanting nothing more than friendship from her suitor, she tells him, “sex is not for me and no amount of priming will let you enter me.”

It turns out, there was no poetic licence used when writing this tale, or any of the stories she shares in The Verandah Poems.

“Oh, this is true – all the poems in this book are true,” confirms Breeze, who will celebrate her 60th birthday this week on March 11.

“You know men have this way of talking to women like they’re cars? Well that’s what he did to me; he primed me like he primed his car,” she laughs. “He spent three years trying to prime me and I kept saying ‘no’. I’m sure if he’d gotten what he’d wanted, he would have been bored with me. You know men like the chase!

“But he’s now decided to look for someone who will give him what he wants. So he doesn’t pick me up for the beach every morning anymore!”

Breeze’s admirer needn’t take it personally, as he’s not the only man whose advances she would turn down. Revealing that she has been celibate for almost 10 years, the celebrated storyteller says she’s doing just fine without sex.

“I think the Lord gave us a certain number of orgasms – and I exhausted mine very young,” she laughs.

“Most of my friends are like, ‘Jean you must be crazy – there’s no way we could give up sex!’ And they’re all in their 60s. But I’ve been [without sex] for nearly 10 years now and I’m enjoying celibacy.”

A mother of three grown-up children – a 40-year-old son and two daughters aged 35 and 25 – do any of Breeze’s offspring wish to see their mum find new love?

“Oh no, they were tired of me and my boyfriends! All their lives, they watched me go from lover to lover. So they’re very happy that I’ve settled down by myself. And I’m very happy as I am. I found that I got very stressed from relationships. So it was nice to not have to consider the feelings of someone else and put myself through more stress. I’ve been married three times, so you see, I know what I’m talking about when I say I don’t need a relationship!

“My children are all grown up and they’re settled, and I really don’t need a man to make my life fulfilled. My life is already fulfilled. As long as I keep writing good poetry, I’m a happy woman.”

The absence of a man in her life doesn’t stop the famed dub poet from commenting on the ins and outs of relationships. In the subtly poignant Home Work, Breeze shares a conversation she has with Aneisha, the lady who “comes on Thursdays to do the ironing.”


CANDID: Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze's new collection The Verandah Poems

As they chat – on the veranda, of course – Breeze begins to complain about how much it costs to keep her daughter in university. Aneisha then notes that she only ever hears mothers talking about their children’s education – “I never hear de man dem talk bout how much for school fees,” Aneisha says.

Breeze then retorts: “It is not their fault we open our legs willingly and the children come easily, and the fathers left as quickly as they came.”

With the issue of absentee ‘babyfathers’ well-known for many single mothers, could the poet’s musings appear to be excusing the ‘wotless’ dads and laying the blame with the lone mothers? Breeze doesn’t think so.

“I think as women, we need to take more responsibility,” she says. “Of course, I’m not talking about women who have been raped, or young girls who have been abused. I’m talking about grown women, who genuinely welcomed the man into their body and then got pregnant.

“If that happens, you have certain choices. And the choice you make is the choice you have to live by. As women, as we get older and we make our choices about men, we have to be wise about the men we choose. And if you choose to have a child with a man who isn’t ready to have children, I don’t think you can then turn around and blame the man if he doesn’t stick around.”

“As grown women, I think we have to bear up to our responsibilities.”

Breeze did just that, raising her three children, while also balancing her literary career. An internationally renowned poet, she has released seven collections, including Riddym Ravings (1988), On the Edge of an Island (1997) and Third World Girl: Selected Poems (2011), as well CDs including Eena Me Corner with the Dennis Bovell Dub Band.
Born in Hanover, Jamaica, she emigrated to England at the age of 30 and went on to establish herself as one of black Britain’s best-known poets.

“I was performing poetry almost as soon as I could talk,” she recalls. “My mother taught me lots of poems when I was a little girl, so at every school or church concert, I would be asked to recite a poem. So I have spent all my life reciting poetry and then I started writing my own.”

Considering the influence of both Jamaica and the UK on her life and work, she says: “I didn’t come to England until I was 30, so I was already formed. All my education was in Jamaica, but England nurtured me and offered me a place to grow. I have enjoyed my years here [in England] – that’s why I’m still here!”

And it is here – specifically, south London venue Black Cultural Archives – where Breeze will launch The Verandah Poems, before embarking on a UK tour, produced by literary organisation Renaissance One.

“Touring in England – I’m looking forward to that,” she says. “I love the performance side. I enjoy being able to share stories of my time in Jamaica to an audience in England, and likewise, when I’m in Jamaica, I tell the people about England! So I do really love performing.”

And now, with the release of The Verandah Poems, Breeze has an exciting new body of work to perform. With her easy-going voice breathing life into the collection’s 29 poems, it’s clear that her Jamaican veranda proved to be a real source of literary inspiration.

“Until I went home and wrote this book, I didn’t realise how much I missed the veranda,” she says. “That public space within the privacy of your home, where you can sit and say ‘good morning’ to everyone who passes by, and have conversations without having to take them into the intimacy of your interior. I missed that.”

Throughout her career, Breeze has been referred to as a storyteller, a dub poet, a spoken word artist and many more descriptions in between. How does she describe herself?

“I’m just a poet,” she laughs. “Sometimes I dub and sometimes I don’t.”

The Verandah Poems is available from March 11, published by Bloodaxe Books. For details on Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze’s UK tour, visit www.renaissanceone.co.uk

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