She grew up in a housing project near the Susquehanna River. She earned her B.A. from Pennsylvania State University in 1990, her MFA from Arizona State University in 1994, and her Ph.D. from Arizona State University in 1999. She has taught at Missouri Western State College, Southern Illinois University and the University of Missouri. She currently teaches in the MFA program at University of Colorado at Boulder.
She began writing at an early age while living in one of the many HUD housing projects that sprung up in Northeastern Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, after the devastating destruction done to that region by Hurricane Agnus in the spring of 1972. Kocher lived in a four room apartment with three siblings and both parents, Robert William Kocher, Jr. who adopted her at age 2 when he married her mother, Brenda Carol Kocher. Her birth father, who was a jazz piano player and frequent gambler, abandoned Kocher's mother before the birth of her child, a few years earlier. Kocher's writing began as a form of play with neighborhood children and emerged into a pastime that kept her occupied during frequent and regular bouts of childhood illness. At the age of 15, Kocher was diagnosed with a follicular carinoma of the thyroid gland. She underwent emergency surgery, but her cancer recurred at the age of 21. It was this second brush with her disease that motivated the recent college drop out to return to school and become more dedicated to a writing career. Her life as a biracial child raised by two working-poor white parents influenced much of her early work.
Kocher was granted permission by the poet Bruce Weigl to unofficially audit a workshop he was teaching at Pennsylvania State University in the fall of 1987. It was during this workshop when Weigl took note of Kocher's work, and with the help of the poet John Balaban, secured funding so that she might re-enroll and finish her B.A. while attending the graduate level workshops in poetry taught in the MFA program at Penn State. Weigl and Balaban served as early roll models for Kocher, and their backgrounds as working class poets writing out of the Viet Nam War are continually evident in the political leanings of her work. Kocher went on to study with Norman Dubie, Alberto Rios, Beckian Fritz Goldberg, and Jeannine Savard in the graduate writing program at Arizona State University which as also turned out such writers as Lisa Chavez, Rick Noguchi, Steve Scafidi, Rigoberto Gonzalez, Oliver de la Paz, Tayari Jones, Jeannie Clark, Lee Barnes and Miguel Murphy among others. Kocher has also attended workshops or seminars run by Yusef Komunyakaa, Toi Derricotte, Cornelius Eady, Nicky Finney, Kwame Dawes, Jean Valentine, and Al Young.
After studying in the Master of Fine Arts program, Kocher went on to earn a Ph.D in American Literature, concentrating on the work of Gertrude Stein, Nella Larsen, H.D., and other Modernist and Harlem Renaissance writers, focusing most specifically on the uses of multiple voice and modes of 'passing'. Her collaborative scholarly work on Frederick Douglass (Miller, Keith D., and Ruth Ellen Kocher. “Shattering Kidnapper's Heavenly Union: Interargumentation in Douglass's Oratory and Narrative.” Hall 1999. 81-87.) has become a staple pedagogical tool in teaching Douglass's Narrative. In addition to scholarly publication, Kocher has also taught and published non-fiction and memoir and run creative writing workshops in various retreats and writing programs across the country.
Her poetry has appeared in various literary journals and magazines, including Washington Square Journal, Ploughshares, Crab Orchard Review, Clackamas Literary Review, The Missouri Review, Ninth Letter, African American Review, The Gettysburg Review, and Antioch, among others, and has been translated into Persian in the Iranian literary magazine She'r and is scheduled to be included in the Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poets. She has been a fellow at the Bucknell Seminar, the Cave Canem Workshop, and Yaddo. She has also worked as a fellow in the Cave Canem Workshop and Retreat.