Life and Work
Ruth Ellen Kocher was born and raised in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. In 1990, she graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a bachelor of arts degree in English. Kocher received a master of fine arts degree in creative writing in 1994 at Arizona State University. She also received a doctorate in American literature at Arizona State University in 1999. Kocher has published three collections of poetry and her poems have appeared in over fifteen journals and in at least five anthologies. Some of her poems are translated into Persian in the literary journal She’r, and she has received several literary awards. She has also published literary criticism in scholarly journals. Her career as an educator includes teaching English courses at Missouri Western State College and at the University of Colorado. Currently Kocher is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Colorado at Boulder, and she teaches courses in African American literature and creative writing.
One theme that frequently appears in Kocher’s work is the need to go back home. In an interview with Vanessa Holford Diana, Kocher shares her belief that many people desire to revisit their roots despite their unwillingness to relive their formative years;” Who wants to return home?” she asks. “And yet, who doesn’t? It’s a paradox that we carry with us. Some of us are revolted by our beginnings, others reminisce about how it was. We wonder how it could have been different” (Diana 270-71). Vanessa Holford Diana suggests that Kocher’s poetry explores the theme of going back to one’s origins by using language that expresses the reluctance to face past experiences; the poems introduce the idea that everyone needs to conquer their fears before they are conquered by them (269). In the poem “Yellow Girl” inDesdemona’s Fire, the stress of looking for the speaker’s roots is expressed symbolically by the change in her hair texture. The old “butterscotch” hair in the poem’s third line represents the speaker’s initial worries of going back to a home where neighbors can decipher her true heritage that she may have been trying to hide. The shift to braided dark hair signifies personal conflictions about whether she is white or Black that leaves the girl bitter about life until her outlook becomes as bleak as her “beige” hair, further on in the poem. The issue of returning home for the speaker means acknowledging her biracial identity, or her multiethnic background, despite her reluctance to do so.
Being biracial, to Kocher, is more like a “hybridity [that] transcends the idea of race” because most African Americans have more than two ethnic backgrounds and cultures and “it goes beyond that as well” (Rowell 935). She grew up confused about race because she was a Black girl in a white family and attended school with few minorities. As an adult, she realizes that her views of life as an African American are due to being treated as one by society, regardless of how she was raised (Diana 272). Kocher later began writing poetry to unravel “the Black Veil,” a state of mind in African Americans of not comprehending their place within their ethnic group (Rowell 936). Desdemona’s Fire is separated into two parts, implicating, according to Leslie Wheeler, the biracial conflictions of the speaker, Desdemona’s daughter (342). The parents of the speaker are Desdemona, a lower class white woman, and a Black jazz pianist. In the poem of the same title, the daughter’s uncertainty about her ethnicity is illustrated by the bewilderment that the “dark arm” and “white thigh” have conceived an offspring that wants to be recognized as their child (25). The search for her father in “Yellow Girl” indicates that a racial symbiosis is needed in order for her to develop her sense of ethnicity; the speaker can achieve this by meeting her father (her Black side) so that both racial parts of her being can bring her inner peace that will end her constant drifting between white and Black identities (Desdemona’s Fire 29-30).
The clever word play in Kocher’s poems may be partially influenced by Audre Lorde, who explored various ways of using language to express ideas (Diana 267). In an interview with Charles Rowell, Kocher argues that using language effectively is the equivalent of having knowledge, through which a poet has enough power to keep the audience’s attention. She believes that Lorde’s “The Uses of Anger” applies language that has a lasting effect, whereas those who are not aware of the potential strength of language do not use it as effectively (Rowell 936). One poem that uses language in a powerful way is “Ode to the Woman Who, On the Day I Earned a Doctorate, Mistook Me For a Shoe Clerk” from One Girl Babylon. The title of the poem is an example of language full of anger that is both empowering and knowledgeable. The language is powerful because of its sarcastic tone, through which the speaker cleverly expresses her subtle anger. The title works because of the order of the diction, with the words “ode” and “doctorate” setting the reading up for what seems to be a positive tribute. The word “mistook” and the phrase “shoe clerk” shatter a reader’s expectations of a humble tribute and inform the reader that the poem may even be comical. Indeed the poem has phrases that combine positive imagery with negative commentary such as flashy shoes compared to “muted gold” in the poem’s first two lines (16). Later in the poem, the speaker’s dislike for educators and administrators becomes more noticeable as she warns the woman not to read the poem in front of mixed company because it will “rattle in your gut” (17). The diction and word order help to attract and maintain the reader’s attention by not following the conventions of speeches and tributes. This poem is an example of Kocher’s overall work as a writer; her experimentation with diction creates empowering messages that are delivered through complex imagery that will no doubt captivate readers for years to come.
Publications and Awards
By the Author
Books of Poetry
- Desdemona’s Fire. Detroit: Lotus, 1999.
- When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering. Kalamazoo: New Issues, 2002.
- One Girl Babylon. Kalamazoo: New Issues, 2003.
- African American Review
- The Antioch Review
- Cimarron Review
- Clackamas Literary Review
- Crab Orchard Review
- Gettysburg Review
- Hayden’s Ferry Review
- The Missouri Review
- The Mochilla Review
- Ninth Letter
- Poet Lore
- Prairie Schooner
- Washington Square Journal
- West Branch
- Willow Springs
- Cave Canem Anthology VII 2002. New York: Cave Canem, 2002.
- Cave Canem Anthology IX 2004. New York: Cave Canem, 2004.
- Commonwealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania. Ed. Marjorie Maddox and Jerry Wemple. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State UP, 2005.
- Garden of Forking Paths: An Anthology of Creative Writers. Ed. Beth Anstandig and Eric Killough. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2006.
- New Bones: Contemporary Black Writers in America. Ed. Kevin Everod Quashie, R. Joyce Lausch and Keith D. Miller. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2000.
- NewSister Voices. Ed. Allison Joseph. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2002.
- Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets Fellowship, 1990
- The Tom McAfee Discovery Feature Poetry Award, 1994
- Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, 1998
- Green Rose Poetry Prize, 2001
Criticism and Interviews
About the Author
- Bass, Holly. Rev. of One Girl Babylon. Black Issues Book Review. 6.2 (Mar. /Apr. 2004): 25-26.
- Contemporary Authors Online. 2004. Gale Literary Databases. 14 Oct. 2006. http://infotrac.galegroup.com.
- McKinney, Sandy. Rev. of When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering. ForeWord Magazine. Jan. / Feb. 2002.
- Perrine, Jennifer. Rev. of One Girl Babylon. Indiana Review. 26.2 (Winter 2004): 179-81.
- Wheeler, Leslie. Rev. of Desdemona’s Fire. African American Review. 35.2 (Summer 2001): 342-43.
- Diana, Vanessa Holford. “I Have Lied to Get the Story Right: Ruth Ellen Kocher.” American Voices: Interviews with American Writers. Cadiz, Spain. (2004): 267-85.
- Rowell, Charles Henry. “Within a Field of Knowing: An Interview with Ruth Ellen Kocher.” Callaloo. 27.4 (Fall 2004): 932-44.
- English Department, University of Colorado at Boulder http://www.colorado.edu/English/faculty/facpages/kocher.shtml