Writer’s Block: Ruth Ellen Kocher

by    /  March 26, 2020  / Comments Off on Writer’s Block: Ruth Ellen Kocher

In this Writer’s Block, recorded and taped in the summer of 2019, Ruth Ellen Kocher discusses her driving force, her writing process, and the influence that Cave Canem has had on her life. 

Interview by Rosa Williamson-Rea and Maggie Medoff. Video by Alexis Jabour. Editing by Kriti Sanghi. 

Q & A with Ruth Ellen Kocher 

What are some hobbies, art forms, or rituals that inform your writing?

I’m really visually driven. A lot of writers like to listen to music when they write, and I’m just the opposite. I thrive in silence and in visual overload. Images, color in every way, shape and form. Often if I’m writing, I have things open all over. I have a book on the table of photography, I have some photographs of my own, I have some books that I print up. I’ve tried to always engage in some other kind of parallel art form. I move in and out of things. I spent lots of time doing photography and sculpture. I spent a year quilting. I like to teach myself things, so I’m inspired by all of it. I think making and knowing are just my driving factors. There’s not too much that you can learn about other art. 

Are there things that push you away from writing? 

There are times when reading another writer paralyzes me. I read and I write, but I generally don’t do both at the same time. Very, very seldomly I’ll have a day where I sit down and read a book of poetry, and then I’m inspired to write so I go write. A lot of writers actually use that process a lot. When you go to readings, you see people sitting around with notebooks writing things down. For me, it’s the opposite. I feel so possessed by what they’re doing, it’s almost like it cancels me out — it eclipses me. It terrifies me a little, too, for my writing to be in too close proximity to someone else’s writing, because I don’t want any of that bleed. When people say they’re inspired, it’s like, “How inspired are you?” That phrase I don’t want to end up in my work. While I do both constantly, I have to keep them stratified, like different layers, or else I’m just paralyzed and retracing my steps. I’d like to be one of those people that could sit down and write a poem every time I read a couple pages of poetry, but it has the complete opposite effect on me. 

What has Cave Canem come to mean to you as far as opening up and building community?

I will say that Cave Canem is my first black family. I’m a black woman who was raised in the northeast — in the Susquehanna Valley, which is populated by the descendants of mostly Eastern European immigrants, some from Britain and lots of Italians. They came to work railroads and mines, and they were all white. I was born to a white mother who married my father when I was two, and he’s white. And I have siblings who are white. Everyone’s white. 

My school was white — I was the first black child in the school district. My blackness was a solitude. It was lonely, and it was never invisible. So..it was like finding a flock.

Ruth Ellen Kocher is the author of several poetry collections, including Third Voice, Ending in Planes (2013 Noemi Book Prize selection), domina Un/blued (winner of the Dorset Prize and the 2014 PEN/Open Book Award), and When the Moon Knows You’re Wandering (Green Rose Prize selection). Kocher has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Cave Canem Foundation, and Yaddo. She has taught poetry writing at several universities and writing programs. Currently, Kocher is a contributing editor at Poets & Writers Magazine and Professor of English at the University of Colorado Boulder, where she teaches poetry, poetics, and literature. Her work can be found in many anthologies, including Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poets, An Anthology for Creative Writers: The Garden of Forking Paths, and New Bones: Contemporary Black Writing in America.

About Writer’s Block: The Writer’s Block is an ongoing video series of interviews with visiting writers at City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. In these Q&A’s, conducted with Sampsonia Way, writers sit down with us to discuss literature, their craft, and career.

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