A conversation with poet R.E.I.L.
For DC-area writer, educator, and spoken-word poet Shaquetta Nelson, also known as R.E.I.L. (“real”), poetry and community are inextricably linked. I spoke to R.E.I.L. about her youth as a slam poet, her connection to the DC arts community, and her collaboration with Day Eight, the nonprofit that recently published her debut collection, Ashes to Justice.
Tell me about a memory you often return to in which you felt connected to the DC literary community, a particularly meaningful performance, or a turning point that changed your relationship to writing/writers here.
When I was 16, I wrote my first piece about my life, entitled “Her Testimony.” I was so afraid to not only write my truth but to share it. I remember I was at Howard University for an event for high school students, and my heart was pounding. As I made it through my poem, I could hear a loud cry from the crowd. A young girl was desperately crying. At first, I didn’t know why — not until I saw it in her eyes. I realized I hadn’t just told my story, I’d told hers, too. That changed my relationship with writing — it not only became something I liked to do, but what I was called to do. My words, my life, my experiences were not in vain. I was meant to see things in life, to use my gift, to give it back to the world and heal people.
Where do you do most of your writing? What does your process look like?
I write anywhere. You never know when you’ll feel inspired. I can be in the shower, in the store, at work — it doesn’t matter. With my writing process, I try not to force it. I patiently write my work as it comes to me. Some pieces can take minutes, some days, and some even months. A lot of times, I find myself saying lines out loud, freestyling, and writing them down as I go.
How and when did you first participate in slam poetry? Do you remember how you felt the first time you performed?
My first poetry slam was in the ninth grade at Parkdale High School. I had never performed my poetry in front of a crowd, and I remember my heart literally beating out of my chest. My English teacher had allocated my entire class period for me to practice with the class as the audience. So, when I did the poetry slam, I felt prepared because I’d rehearsed all day. I closed my eyes and let my words flow. The standing ovation from the crowd told me that this is what I want to do. It was a wonderful, overwhelming feeling.
How does youth education intersect with your poetry practice?
I write about things that I’ve either experienced or seen in my community. Poetry gave me a way out of a world that I felt trapped in: my mind. I think that giving that same outlet back to the youth is a powerful thing, showing them that they have a voice, a reason, and a purpose.
How did you connect with Day Eight?
I connected with Day Eight in 2018 at the DC Poet Project. I was a finalist, and I came in first place but ultimately decided to drop out. For the past four years, I’ve worked with Day Eight teaching youth and performing all over.
How did it feel to publish your first collection?
When I published my first book, I felt nothing less than blessed. I honestly never thought that I would publish a book. I always closed myself into a box of only being a performer. Publishing my book has impacted my life because I see how much support I have behind me. I see that people are eager to hear what I have to say. It’s an amazing feeling.
[Editor’s note: This piece is in support of the Inner Loop’s “Author’s Corner,” a monthly campaign that spotlights a DC-area writer and their recently published work from a small to medium-sized publisher. The Inner Loop connects talented local authors to lit lovers in the community through live readings, author interviews, featured book sales at Potter's House, and through Eat.Drink.Read., a collaboration with restaurant partners Pie Shop, Shaw’s Tavern, and Reveler’s Hour to promote the author through special events and menu and takeout inserts.]