Continuing our Interview Series, we sat down with new writer Cira Mancuso about her debut poetry collection, writing process, and what studying International Security really means.
Let’s start this interview off with you telling us a little bit about yourself.
I’ll start with the basics: I am twenty-years-old, originally from Stamford, Connecticut but went to high school in New York. Right now I am a sophomore at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service in Washington D.C. I am majoring in International Politics and minoring in Spanish. I work at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security as a research and communications assistant. If I’m not studying or working–– truly the main two ways I spend my time––I am writing.
Tell us about SKIN and what it means to you.
This book is my child. I have watched it grow from scribbles and notes scattered between my journals, iPhone, and computer, to an actual, readable, book. I’ve put my heart and soul into SKIN, and that is absolutely terrifying. I’ve had my fair share of rejection letters, but the thing about poetry is how personal it is. Even though some of the poems aren’t based on my own experiences, there’s a part of me in each one. You can’t write something and not be attached to it. I really am my own worst critic. I have journals full of poems that I won’t share because I don’t feel they’re good enough. This past year has been one of the hardest years of my life. The universe has thrown a lot of curve balls at me, and sometimes they’ve come extremely close to knocking me out. I didn’t think this book would get published, and I’m still in disbelief that it is. SKIN is a testament to strength and determination: always keep going and one day something great will come of it.
What sparked the inspiration behind the book?
I don’t think I ever realized how little people talk about their feelings until I started university. I’ve been deemed “confrontational” simply because I tell someone how I feel. I had no way to get my emotions out because I felt forced into silence. That’s where writing came in. Eventually, it turned into more than just my own feelings. Friends would confide in me and, while I will take every word to my grave, sometimes the weight of the story was too much to bear alone. So, I wrote. I took all the things that went unsaid and I put them into poems, and along the way I encouraged my friends to start dialogues and just talk. A lot of the problems we have with other people stem from the fact that we don’t talk about them. People often internalize their stories—particularly those relating to topics that we, as a society, continue to ignore and sweep under the rug—because feelings are deemed weak. Stories relating to sexual assault, mental health, or subjects like menstruation, are met with criticism because they make us see our failure as a society and our continued inability to change. SKIN tries to normalize the unspoken and, if anything, remind people that they are not alone. I want people to read some of these poems about womanhood, assault, abuse, and mental health, and feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortable in a way that makes them reflect on why they feel that way. Emotions are the very thing that connect us as humans. If we fail to engage in these feelings and interact with others through that channel, we are denying pieces of ourselves and stunting our full growth potential.
How does it feel to be releasing your first book?
It is truly unbelievable. I think back to June of 2018, when I had this VERY distant idea of publishing a book. I started organizing some poems I wrote and looking into self-publishing. Once school started up again, all that took a backseat and it seemed like another unachievable dream. Even now, after months and months of work, it still feels like it’s not happening. I don’t know if I’ll even believe it when I’m holding a copy of the printed book. There’s this stereotype that careers in the art world are doomed to fail, and that dissuades a lot of people from ever exploring their passions. Writing was always my hobby, something I was convinced I couldn’t make a career out of. One of my professors recently told me that if writing is what I love, then that’s what I should do. He pointed to George Saunders as an example, and even sent me a New York Times profile on him. It’s that encouragement that is rare, but impactful. I never saw being a published author as part of my career plan, but here I am and I am incredibly grateful and excited.
You broke your book into five sections, WITH a playlist. Tell us what inspired you to go into this direction.
This idea came to me while I was listening to my Spotify playlist titled, “‘fortunately my feelings regenerate at twice the speed of a normal man’s’ -Dwight Schrute.” My task of the day had been to decide how I wanted to organize my book. I wanted to do it by parts, but I didn’t want to conform to the traditionally labels of things like “love” and “growth.” I saw those as themes within the parts of my book, but I couldn’t find the words to properly separate each section. I always listen to music when I write, and I have playlists for all my moods (my Dwight playlist is my emotional mood). If I have writer’s block, which is often, I put in my earbuds and isolate myself. Sometimes I walk until I get lost or sometimes I sit on a bench and just watch the world go by. The songs always inspire me, because even as a writer, there are words I just never find. That’s how I felt about dividing my book. I couldn’t find the words to explain the sections, but the songs do that for me.
The important thing about these playlists is that they aren’t traditional. Each song is meant to be taken on its own. I use the word “playlist” because the songs each go with the poems in the section, but the playlist shouldn’t be looked at as a whole. I draw from a plethora of genres, as I’ve never had a favorite, and I want these songs to resonate with everyone. I put as much time into selecting songs as I did into writing poems. Some are deeply personal, some echo a poem, and some say the words I either wasn’t able to write or never got around to writing.
You are currently majoring in International security. Can you please tell us what this means and if we should be afraid of you?
I promise you should not be afraid of me! Majoring in security studies means I take classes about international relations and how state relations or conflicts relate to security. I am particularly interested in gender and extremism. Women are often underestimated and ignored, and many terrorist groups, like Daesh, have utilized women very effectively in their campaigns as a result. Gender stereotypes aid terrorist groups. For example, women are inconspicuous and deemed “harmless.” This makes them perfect suicide bombers, and research demonstrates this. I could go on forever about the ways women are excluded from the security sector and how that is detrimental to peacekeeping, post-conflict reconstruction, and preventing violent extremism. I believe that the intersection of security and gender is underutilized and undervalued. I often have to take two separate classes to get a gender perspective. For example, instead of having one class like “Gender and Peace in Asia,” which does not exist, I have to take two classes, one on gender in Asia and one on international peace in Asia. There needs to be more advocacy and action taken to include gender in all sectors of education (and obviously beyond).
You mentioned you’re not well known in the writing world, but do you have any favorite writers that you been keeping up with?
I have many! In terms of poets, I love Courtney Peppernell, Nikita Gill, Ellen Everett, The Wanderer, Noor Unnahar, Salma El-Wardany, and Julie Anderson. I add a new person to the list every day and I’m sure I’m forgetting some. Other writers include Jessica Bennett ––author of The Feminist Fight Club and gender editor of The New York Times. I also love Maya Salam, who also writes for NYT Gender. General living novelists include John Irving. There are definitely more, and chances are if you name someone, I’ll end up saying “I love them!”
We see that you’re a huge fan of Sylvia Plath. What is it about her and her writing that speaks to you?
We live in a world of confinement––societal and personal. Sylvia Plath defined this feeling using the metaphor of a bell jar in her novel, The Bell Jar. Everything inside a bell jar is hermetically sealed, keeping its contents inside. But society at large is itself trapped in a bell jar, determined to fit into expectations and conventions. Her metaphor is a double-edged sword, calling to those who have experienced the black hole of dejection and rejection, but also those who feel the need to morph themselves into something they are not. Plath manifests a rift in a wave of normalcy. Written in the 1960’s, a novel that dealt with crises of identity, femininity, and *gasp* sexuality, was unthinkable. Plath is a source of universal truth, particularly for women. She wrote about post-partum depression, telling the world that childbirth is actually pretty gross; beauty standards and insecurity; mental health and the stigmas surrounding it. Societal pressure can force us into a bell jar, making us keep our thoughts to ourselves, even though the odds are, someone else feels the same way. This is exactly what SKIN is about, and Plath served as my biggest source of inspiration.
What are your favorite genres to write besides poetry and prose?
I love writing op-eds! Unfortunately, I don’t have the time I wish I had to write more of these pieces. I particularly enjoy writing about gender issues. If time allows, I want to write a piece for one of the university newspapers about the recent Women and Countering Violent Extremism Act introduced in the U.S. Congress. I also want to do a piece about the need for more gender inclusion and gender consciousness in classes, as I wrote above. I would like to explore more journalistic writing but haven’t had the opportunity.
When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?
It was always this distant dream of mine, but I think I tried to convince myself it couldn’t and wouldn’t happen. I was told that writing wasn’t a stable profession, that it would be a “tough life,” that I would have trouble “finding a job.” I started to believe that. It wasn’t until last year when I started college that someone actually told me my writing was good. I had never shared it (besides academic papers) and never even thought anything of it. My group of friends encouraged me to share my work at art events on campus, and eventually I even wandered off to perform at Busboys and Poets. I’m definitely not a spoken word poet, but those events made me feel part of the writing community for the first time. Once I started working, I realized how I could incorporate writing into my career path, specifically through research. I’m still refining this idea and how I’ll do it, but I know that I want writing to be part of my everyday life.
Tell us how we can support you in future endeavors.
Oh gosh, I’m shameless–buy my book!!! Right now I am working to fund the publishing costs of my book on a crowdfunding platform called Indiegogo. Publishing as a student is extremely difficult, especially when it comes to cost. Any pre-orders made on Indiegogo are going directly towards my costs, and depending on which “tier” you order, there are different perks with each. After the book is published in July, it will be available on Amazon! I’m trying to garner attention for SKIN, so any PR is appreciated, especially as I build my own website (in the works). I’ve only fully entered the online writing community recently, but I have to take a moment to just say thank you to everyone in it. I resurrected my Twitter last month and hundreds of writers followed me and have tweeted me with words of support. This is especially important for female writers––there’s not enough of us out there!
You can pre-order SKIN here and if you post on social media, please tag me and use the hashtag #SKIN
My twitter is @ciramancuso and my Instagram is @cbmancuso