Conversations in the Author's Corner: Shaquetta Nelson
About the Book: Ashes to Justice traces the path of poet R.E.I.L through love, abuse, betrayal, and recovery toward self-love. In this debut collection the DC-area spoken word performer and poet educator explores the demons in her self and world returning to love for her family of birth, and the family she’s found. Kim B Miller described the book, “Written with a whisper and a hammer.” Cover art for the book is by Luis Del Valle. Click to purchase the book.
About the Author: Shaquetta Nelson, who publishes and performs under the name R.E.I.L. (real), is the author of the book Ashes to Justice (published February 2022). In her debut collection, the DC-area spoken word performer and poet educator releases the demons of this world while holding onto love for her family of birth and the family she’s found. R.E.I.L. started her poetry career at open mics in the D.C. area and at 16 competed in the Brave New Voices slam in New York City. A poetic performer, visual artist, and arts educator teaching in D.C. schools, R.E.I.L. seeks inspiration from past and present life experiences to help the lives of other unsung souls.
As a content warning to readers, this conversation references childhood sexual abuse and rape.
Lena Crown: I'd love to get started by talking about family. In your preface to the collection, you highlight the first two poems, which are about your grandmother and your experience with childhood sexual abuse, respectively. You write: “Through those two forces, those experiences of family, I began to find my true voice.” Tell us about the decision to put those first two poems so early in the collection and how you see them shaping the reader’s experience.
Shaquetta Nelson: The first poem is “Piece for PEACE,” which is about my grandmother. My book was published on February 13, of 2022. My grandmother passed on February 13 2020, from the pandemic. So it was not only a wonderful opportunity, but it was also a wonderful outlet and coping mechanism for me. I remember going to a workshop with a writer a few days ago, and we were talking about things that make you feel lost. And I shared with my students and my colleagues that the time I felt lost was losing my grandmother. That piece really helped me get through and exhale. My mom had asked me to write a poem for my grandmother, and I didn't want to do it. But when I did, it took me five minutes. I feel that’s the greatest gift of poetry—to share your story with others.
LC: The collection does start in such a place of love and celebration. That stuck out to me, especially juxtaposed with the second poem in the collection. Immediately after this elegy and ode to your grandmother, we get “Her Testimony,” in which the speaker approaches their experience with childhood sexual abuse through the third person. “She wanted me to tell her story.” “This young girl died four times.” I would love to hear more about your choices behind the point of view.
SN: Women go through trials and tribulations when trying to justify, solidify—and a whole lot of other things—who we are as women, while also trying not to look back through what we've been through. Poetry is going to expose you, and it’s going to expose [other] people. At first, I was holding back. I didn't want people to feel sorry for me; I wanted them to be able to connect, because like I told you before, it's not just my story. It's a lot of women’s story. So who am I to be selfish? I didn’t name it “R.E.I.L.’s Testimony.” It’s “Her Testimony”—not that only females go through that. [The poem] is saying, ‘You can come up from that. That doesn’t define you. The hurt and the pain don’t define you. You can live and you can be who you need to be.’
LC: You mentioned imagining the young people who are going to be hearing these stories and internalizing the act of telling them. How long have you been teaching or working with youth? And how does your experience with youth inform or impact your writing practice?
SN: I've been working with Day Eight for the past four or five years. But I've been working with kids my whole life. When I go into my teachings, I try to think about when I was a child. I'm thirty-two, but when I open up to these kids, they think I’m young, so they connect with me. I really love it. You see these kids on the first day, they’re nonchalant, but day two, day three, they’re excited to share their work. That makes me feel so good. Because you give these kids an outlet, you give them something to look forward to. They [become] dedicated to writing. I try to teach [my students] that it’s not just about poetry. Poetry is a form of writing. Once you pick that pen up, you can let loose. Because you’re not talking to anyone else, you’re talking to you.
LC: How did you approach getting these down on paper?
SN: As a slam poet, I write as I read. I’ll write as if I’m performing. So if I say, ‘Yes MA’AM,’ I’m going to write it down that way, capitalized. That’s the reason I had never seen myself publishing a book. But I had so much support from Day Eight that it was an awesome experience.
LC: For our Author’s Corner project, we’re promoting authors who have published with small, indie presses. Could you talk us through your publication process?
SN: I met with Day Eight in 2018, at the DC Poetry Project. I came in first place, but I did not accept the offer. But Day Eight is a wonderful company, and I continued to work with them. Once the opportunity was presented to me for book publication, I jumped on it. They made sure everything—from the book cover to the print to the order of the poems—was through my approval. I feel anointed. Even down to the book title—Robert initiated Ashes to Justice, and I was like, “That’s it,” since my niece’s name is Justice. I’m very happy with the support from Day Eight.
Watch the entire interview on YouTube here:
About The Inner Loop: The Inner Loop is a literary reading series and network for creative writers in the Washington, D.C. metro area. We aim to create a space for both emerging and established writers to connect with their community, and to transform the written word into a shared experience through the act of reading aloud. This interview is part of our Author’s Corner campaign, promoting local authors publishing with indie presses.