‘Beautiful word’ power

"Give me a cigarette, I need a smoke."

"Women don’t get cigarettes from me, so shut up and go to sleep," he yelled back, turning the transistor up, "Body and Soul" flowing through, tiny in sound, real annoying, my throat stuck in the middle of the radio’s static. The station faded. The cowboy sheriff fell asleep …

Five is all it takes. Just five or 10. You only need to read a few lines written by Kaleema Hasan to realize that she’s pulled you in — and you aren’t getting out until she’s ready to let you go.

The above passage comes from “Billie,” her short story about Billie Holiday, written in 1995 while Kaleema was a two-week guest of the Wind Call Resident Program at a ranch in Montana. She was awarded solace there as a result of having won a grant in the annual nationwide competition sponsored by the Common Counsel Foundation of Oakland, California. With it, social activists are invited to seek retreats to energize themselves any way they want, be it sleeping, writing or whatever.

Kaleema naturally chose to expand upon convictions forged while growing up (her mother taught Kaleema and her 10 siblings to seek out the difference between the truth and myth) and the 50 years of life experience that convinced her that “words are more powerful than anything.”

Kaleema learned about word power early. When she was a student at Detroit’s Durfee Elementary School, composing gangster stories caught her fancy — one teacher’s too. When she discovered that Kaleema’s classmates liked her adventurous stories so much, that teacher used them as a carrot for good conduct: For every week of the class’ good behavior, Kaleema got to read the next chapter of a story on Friday afternoon.

“In another series of chapters,” Kaleema remembers, “I gave every fourth daughter in families a vocation to the sisterhood. I called it the ‘Marie Series.’ Never mind that I wasn’t Catholic. I had anxiety because I didn’t know how to change the story’s direction once I set it into play!”

Because Kaleema was encouraged both at home and at school, she entered every writing contest that came along. When she was in the ninth grade at what was then Detroit’s McMichael Junior High School, she entered a poem into a national contest that she was particularly proud of. She especially liked the words “Just out having fun, Just blessed with a son.” Her teacher did not. In front of her classmates, he balled up the poem and threw it at Kaleema, saying that it was the worst poem he’d ever read. That would have been most distressing to any other teenager, but not her.

“I thought that if words could engender such a reaction from someone, then I had to continue writing.”

Kaleema has always had an inquisitive mind. She’s the only member of her family who is Muslim; she credits this to her drive for inner development.

“All right,” Kaleema laughs, “I’m headstrong too.”

A headstrong woman with a good sense of humor.

“I became Muslim in 1968 when I entered high school at Cass Tech,” she says. “And when I graduated from Chadsey (my family moved frequently), my father asked me to please wear a more ‘American’ dress — sleeveless and to the knees and not so covered up. He was such a good father that I consented. When I entered the auditorium, the boys in my class (and I have to admit that I was kind of well-known for my odd religion and poetry) began shouting, ‘Look at Annie — she’s got legs.’ They had a ball, and my mother and father were kind of overwhelmed and amused by the whole thing. I laughed too, because it was funny!”

Kaleema was born Annie Pearl Sanders. It was in the deep South at the tender age of 2 that she first carried a sign in a march with a union-organizing uncle. While she has gone through many metamorphoses in her life, Kaleema has always kept her strong social values … but not her given name.

“My parents were very tolerant with me. My first name change came when I was 16, when I adopted the first name ‘Iyeyah.’ I’ve gone through so many different names since then that I can’t remember them all. Some naturally came with my four marriages. But I won’t change from ‘Kaleema Hasan,’ which I took on in 1972. I chose it because it literally means ‘beautiful word.’”

In the early ’80s, Kaleema and her then-husband, Leonard King, performed with his New Day Blues Band in the Cass Corridor. Leonard was the drummer; Faye Washington played flute; her husband, Donald, played sax, and William Townley was the band’s trombonist. Kaleema read while the others played. Her work was anti-establishment, anti-nuclear arms and pro-social justice.

“When we sent a performance tape to the Toronto Music Festival and were told that they wanted the poet to perform without the band … well, I just stopped reading with them so my husband wouldn’t be embarrassed. We didn’t respond to Toronto’s request,” laughs Kaleema.

As her self-confidence has grown over the years, her work has appeared in such publications as Jam Rag, Hipology, Solid Ground Magazine, the Solid Ground Anthology and the City Arts Review.

“My earliest mentor was the late Susan Mills Peck, Lonnie Peck’s wife, at Wayne State University,” says Kaleema. “I was the first poet to work with Dr. Terry Blackhawk in the early stages of the InsideOut Literary Arts Project. Funded by grants and gifts, InsideOut fosters and celebrates the creative writing of Detroit Public School students. This is a terrific program.”

Kaleema has also been poet in residence for both the Broadside Press’ Poets Theater and the City of Detroit’s Chaney Public Library. She’s been featured on WDET-FM 101.9, and has read at the Camillian Café, Borders Book Shop and for Ron Allen’s seminal Horizons in Poetry.

Along with poets John Mason and Wardell Montgomery, Allen founded Horizons in Poetry in 1980 to offer a venue for oral poetry with readings, critiques and dialogue concerning the developing possibilities of language.

“I first met Kaleema in 1982, when she approached me about doing a reading for Horizons,” says Allen. “When she spoke to me, I knew that she was a very sensitive woman, an artist. I trust her opinion and I like her work. She’s a beautiful spirit, one who gives you hope if you’re feeling cynical. She was one of Horizons’ first featured readers at Cobb’s Corner. Cobb’s Corner is no longer there, but we still provide a space for readings when and where we can. We’re very informal,” says Allen. “We have no roster and no membership fees.

“Kaleema’s going to read at our 20th anniversary celebration on Sunday. I’ll cook a dinner (I used to be a professional chef); we’ll have open-mic readings and critique, and music played by D.J. G. Smoove from North End Productions. We plan to have some of Detroit’s most talented writers, including Semaj, Melba Joyce Boyd and Aurora Harris, read for us that night. The general public is invited; while it’ll be free, donations will be accepted,” says Allen.

With confidence that Detroit has a great network for poets, Kaleema invites anyone interested in either writing or reading poetry to come on out.


Horizons in Poetry’s 20th Anniversary Celebration takes place at 7:30 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 10, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church (4605 Cass, Detroit). Call 313-833-9107.

Marilynn Sambrano is a Detroit-based freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]