Jean “Binta” Breeze: memories from the verandah

Lauded as the first female dub poet, Jamaican Jean “Binta” Breeze writes from a sensibility informed by the political ferment of her youth, and her struggles with mental illness. David Katz finds out more

Photo by Tehron RoyesThe Fifth FigureThird World GirlThe Verandah Poems

Jean “Binta” Breeze stifles a laugh as she ponders the genesis of her latest book, The Verandah Poems. “I got very ill in England,” she says, with a slight sigh. “As a matter of fact, I had two strokes and was in a coma for five days. So I decided to come and spend a year in Jamaica, to just get better. And when I came home, I spent all of my time sitting on the verandah, and I thought, why not write some verandah poems?”

Released in March 2016 to mark the arrival of her sixtieth birthday, The Verandah Poems is Breeze’s eighth published book. The subtle work contained within its pages evokes the quiet and rustic nature of village life, with the verandah a space for conversation and contemplation, yet the trappings of modernity are never far. We can sense it in the absence of a daughter flown abroad, through debates on Scotland’s abortive independence drive, and in the terrible menace of the crack cocaine and go-go bars that blight the rural idyll. Bolstered by evocative colour portraits by photographer Tehron Royes, the book is largely driven by personal memories, forming a strong contrast to Breeze’s early work, which was often more overtly political.

Breeze reveals that she was born Jean Lumsden in the rural parish of Hanover, Jamaica, where her father was chief public health inspector, and her mother a midwife. She speaks to me by telephone from the same coastal village in which she was raised, where her parents introduced her to poetry at an early age, stimulating a longstanding affinity. “My mother taught me all the poems that I know by heart in my head. She was a great reciter of poetry, and she just recited them to me; she never learned who the authors were, so I never knew either. And every concert that there was in my village or my parish, they knew that I knew a lot of poems, so I was always asked to recite. When I was twelve, I was sent by the church for a speech competition, and I had to learn Kipling’s ‘If’. Then my father brought me Omar Khayyam, Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet, Edgar Allen Poe’s ‘The Raven’.”

After graduating from Rusea’s High School and marrying one of her former teachers, Breeze began writing poems through political activism, supporting the ruling People’s National Party during Michael Manley’s programme of democratic socialism. She subsequently found her true artistic voice as a student at the Jamaica School of Drama, becoming Jean “Binta” Breeze through a gradual process of transformation. “I taught in secondary schools in Hanover and Westmoreland for about five years, and I worked as a cultural development officer, organising all the dance, drama, and music for schools and community groups,” she explains. “It was then that I got the love for the drama, when I went to a drama workshop and met Dennis Scott, the then dean of the Jamaica School of Drama, and I decided I was going to study there. I married a Welshman called Breese at the age of eighteen, and when we divorced, I had already started doing the poetry, and I had changed the spelling to Breeze. Then Binta came into being in 1978, when my friends and I were choosing African names for ourselves.”

Breeze reached Kingston at a particularly volatile time, when partisan violence was escalating. The new movement of dub poetry, in which politically relevant verse was set to reggae rhythms, was also gathering steam in reaction to the internecine battles. “I was a village girl, in the middle of Kingston in the 70s, when gunshots were fired all around,” she says, with another smattering of laughter. “I used to sleep in a hammock under a tree at the drama school, and I thought they were cars backfiring, not gunshots. [Poets] Michael Smith and Oku Onuora were at the drama school, and Mutabaruka passed through. All the artists were gathering around that campus, and I had the chance to major in drama, do classes in dance, and follow up in classes at the School of Music. So I was well-trained.”

Breeze received her first taste of international recognition after Mutabaruka arranged her debut recording, “Slip”, issued overseas on Heartbeat Records to widespread acclaim. “That’s the way I emerged as the first female dub poet,” she explains, noting that the release came during another transformative phase. “At the time, I was in the middle of a four-year stint in the hills. I joined a community of Rastafarians in the hills of Clarendon, who believed that the forward movement for Jamaica was that we should all be able to feed ourselves. So ‘Slip’ is a very Rasta-oriented poem, but later on, it developed into being more political, rather than just Rastafarian, when I wrote things like ‘Aid Travels With a Bomb’. Then I began to draw on my education, because I had a great idea of human economics around the world, and I got a sense of how my people were from my grandparents, who were peasant farmers, like most of the people in Hanover. I got to know just where we were in terms of the Third World and the developed world. I wrote ‘Aid Travels With a Bomb’ when Jamaica signed with the IMF, and I put it all together, what was happening to us politically on the island.”

 

But personal upheaval came in tandem with the initial commendations. Breeze has been brave enough to be open about the schizophrenia she has suffered from for most of her adult life, dating its onset to her Clarendon sojourn. “I started having breakdowns when I left drama school and went to live in the hills as a Rastafarian. No one really knew what to do,” she says, “and finally my mother came to get me, because I had just had my second child, and my mother was incredible. Because I decided that I had to have a Rastafarian doctor, and there was only one in the country, Dr Fred Hickling, and I had to be put in a private hospital for him to see me. So my mother mortgaged her house to see me through that illness. I was stabilised, but then I kept on having attacks; every two or three years, I would have a breakdown.”

Although Breeze has never let mental illness define her, the breakdowns came to influence her work, inspiring the breakthrough poem “Ryddim Ravings”, also known as “The Mad Woman’s Poem”, about a woman who hears a radio in her head — rendered all the more impressive by Breeze’s dramatic, half-sung performances. “It was a strange poem,” she suggests, “because I was staying in Kingston with Rawle Gibbons, a Trinidadian playwright, and while he was sitting there writing, I heard a voice in my head say, ‘I’ll give you one,’ and I just wrote ‘The Mad Woman’s Poem’ from beginning to end. It was probably the first time my schizophrenia entered my writing.”

Soon after, Breeze recorded a debut album, Ryddim Ravings, with a company called Technical Productions — but the material was licensed to the New York–based cassette label ROIR without her knowledge, leading her to largely absent herself from music matters. Then pioneering dub poet Linton Kwesi Johnson invited her to travel to London in 1985, to perform at the International Book Fair of Radical, Black, and Third World Books, which led in turn to a two-year teaching position at Brixton College. Increasing demand then saw Breeze concentrate on performance poetry full-time.

Breeze’s book Ryddim Ravings was published by Race Today in 1988, and Virago issued Spring Cleaning in 1992. She began a fruitful relationship with the British poetry publisher Bloodaxe in 1996, with the publication of On the Edge of an Island, while the album Tracks, recorded in Brixton with Dennis Bovell, was released on LKJ Records the following year. Bloodaxe has subsequently issued several other volumes, including The Arrival of Brighteye and the noteworthy 2011 collection Third World Girl, published shortly before Breeze was awarded an MBE for her services to literature in Britain.

In contemplating The Verandah Poems and her current state of affairs, Breeze says that other personal changes have led to greater stability: finding the right medication was a big help, and living alone has also suited her, as noted in the opening and closing poems of the new book. “The medication was life-saving, and I decided that I’d had enough of the emotional stress that goes with relationships. So I’ve been living alone, and on this medication, and I’ve had no breakdowns in fourteen or fifteen years.”

Breeze ends our interview by noting that she now divides her time between Jamaica and Britain through three-month intervals in each country, concentrating on her writing in the former and on live performance in the latter. And the prospect of reaching other places remains a source of continual inspiration. “I really look forward to getting to know more of the Caribbean in general.”