Jean ‘Binta’ Breeze, Saturday 22nd October, workshop 3pm; performance 7.30pm, Contact
Workshop: Words by Shaaheda Patel. Photograph by Ed Swinden.
On a Saturday afternoon, Oxford Road’s vibrant Contact theatre is the venue for today’s meeting of dynamic, young writers, waiting to be coached by acclaimed Caribbean poet Jean "Binta" Breeze.
The oranges and purples, running parallel to the striking urban artwork on our entrance, reflects the diversity of our motley group. We are led into a slow-moving mirrored lift, to an upper floor. The chirpy yellow room is already occupied by a small table in the centre; seats are filled.
I sit to the left of Jean; she is beaming and welcomes us in.
White plates of chocolate biscuits are on offer, sugary stimulants for the writing process ahead. We have intimacy and arm space, as two Young Identity members arrive and the door is closed. Part of the writing development organisation Commonword, Young Identity supports teenagers and young adults by using poetry, prose and performance to expose young people’s issues.
Jean begins with some warm-up activities. She introduces herself as Jean, a poet who had Alpen for breakfast. We are subsequently asked to introduce ourselves in the same way but are challenged to build up the list of names and breakfasts as we circle the table. It turns out that I am accompanied by a first-time writer, some accomplished poets, a young poet who had frankfurters on baps for breakfast and this year’s Superhero Of Slam poetry winner.
Jean now gives us five minutes to carry out some free writing. We are asked to write in detail about everything that we have done in our day so far. I find myself jotting down intimate details of my husband, as he finally sweeps a dying bee off the floor that had inconvenienced us by lying there dying for two long days already. The writer next to me whispers that she finds this exposing and I find myself agreeing.
Commenting on one writer’s smoking habits, Jean tells us that she was once a chain smoker, and only the risk of a brain haemorrhage has now slowed her down. Her day would normally have read, “Coffee, 16 cigarettes, coffee, 10 cigarettes…”
Jean now introduces the difference between the concrete and the abstract and our next task is to use only the concrete to describe the more convoluted abstract. We choose an abstract noun each and begin the process. I choose Imagination.
Jean starts by asking a series of questions to evoke the senses and we are silent in this large yellow room and only the scribbling of Biros is heard. “If you walked in on your abstract, what would it be doing?” She asks as her final question. Immediately I see Imagination spinning, neat and orderly: “Chaos contained through movement,” I write.
To recharge, Jean points us towards the green room and on return we re-read and redraft our poems in silence.
Jean asks us to share what we have written. We hear of “boiled tripe in bleach”, and “stray strands of silky black refusing tidy pony tails”, triggering animated discussions of grief, integrity and indifference.
Our time with Jean has ended.
Jean talks about perspectives and tells us as we sit in silence: “We are on our own in this world. It is your world and the senses are full of wonderful things.” She discusses our frustrations as new writers and sometimes our obsessions with "getting an idea". She encourages us to trust our senses. “We are sometimes overturned by a smell, and this is how the poem becomes the idea.” She helpfully advises while pointing at the table: “Be true to the local and the concrete… that will then become true to the universal.” She ends: “Be true to the little things.”
We learn that Jean didn’t come to this point through academia and university. She has been writing since 11 and performing since the 70s. Her book of selected poems, Third World Girl, came out last month and as she leafs through it she can still see the truth. The truth transcends time.
“Write with honesty,” she pleads. And with that thought we leave on this Saturday afternoon; stepping back out onto busy Oxford Road; inspired and ready to self-consciously sense again on our separate journeys home.
Shaaheda Patel is a teacher of English Language and Literature at a sixth-form college in Blackburn. She blogged for Manchester Literature Festival in 2010 and has worked on literature development projects with Time To Read.
Performance: Words by Kevin Danson. Photograph by Ed Swinden.
Tonight is a night I want to remember and tell people about for a long time. I say this not only due to a series of bicycle calamities getting to tonight’s event, involving me riding a bike which would be too small even for a six year old then pedalling like a fugitive to maintain punctuality, but also because I was given the opportunity to watch the sold-out performance of passionate and compelling Jean "Binta" Breeze. Segun Lee-French is the anchor of tonight’s Manchester Literature Festival event, jointly hosted by Renaissance One, Commonword and Speakeasy.
Launching this evening’s poetry are some members of the inspiring group Young Identity: Nicole May, Saquib Chowdhury, Yussuf M’Rabty, Reece Williams, Elmi Ali and Mike Bennett. They stand in unison as the voice of our young generation presenting pieces relating teenage struggles of romance, hesitant thoughts of an infatuated boy and difficulties of witnessing domestic violence. It isn’t all seriousness however. Nicole gives a witty piece on extremities women go to - waxing, botoxing, enhancing, clothing - in order to fit the ever-changing picture of an ideal woman. Young Identity offer free workshops every Tuesday at Contact Theatre from 7-9pm. Some of these poets perform their arts as part of Brave New Voices, representing the UK around the globe. Manchester’s where it’s at!
Three Speakeasy poets substitute the Young Identity crew and smooth the audience with their luscious voices. Between them they describe society’s judgments on our current reality vis-à-vis virtual reality (Chanje Kunda) and rap issues on politics and the global financial crisis (Yvonne McCalla and Amanda Milligan), all the while causing a respirational standstill for silent reflection. It is that quiet I could hear a feather land.
Jean "Binta" Breeze steps into the spotlight to euphoric applause. After cracking a few jokes – though this continues throughout her performance – Jean breaks into song that rolls sweetly into her first poem, Simple Things. As she finishes her Testament poem, Jean tells us of the church songs she learnt as a child in her granny’s lounge. And that is just how we all feel right now; as if we are in the lounge of Jean "Binta" Breeze and she is sharing her childhood memories. There is a certain intimacy between the audience and this captivating poet. Jean starts a song; we all join in. Jean taps her foot and we keep the beat like a human metronome. I love it when she hurtles the lyrics; "Old pirates, yes, they rob I" receiving a bursting return of the subsequent words to one of Bob Marley’s most significant songs. Her presence is like that of a church leader, admitting truths in her words above sounds of harmony and amens from her devotees.
I would never have guessed that as I sit here in Contact I would be travelling through the mountains of western Jamaica meeting stern yet entertaining grandparents and watching a small Jamaican child arrive on our foreign shores then being witness to a Caribbean wife/mother/worker’s testament. Occasionally I find myself lost under the patois yet I cling on to an identifiable word and get myself back on track.
Jean wraps up with a rhythmic poem about a Caribbean woman - however there appears to be not a chance in the world that this crowd will let her go that easily. The applause is like a thunderstorm and the fans rise to give her a full-house standing ovation. We get one more out of her, a new poem called Third World Girl, also the name of her new book. Undoubtedly one of the best colonial poems I have ever heard. With verse like "You can’t love me cos you own me / my paradise is your hotel" and "Empire’s over but the rape’s been done", my thoughts are drowned and I’m swimming in contemplation.
I arrived dizzy and out of breath, now I’m leaving in exactly the same way. Even though I have an unforgettable Nana of my own, I am happy to take on 20 more Jean "Binta" Breezes.
Kevin Danson is an English Literature student at MMU. Read his blog Pebbleddash and follow him on Twitter @pebbleddash.