January 22, 2015

Patience, persistence pay off for student poet

by Andrea Hahn

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- When Emily Rose Cole says failure is not an option, her words carry the resonance of a vow. 

“I always wanted to be a poet, but I didn’t have a trust fund,” she said, then explained that the expression was a sort of “in-joke” between her and her mother. Her mother was no enemy to the arts, but she wanted to be sure her daughter pursued a college degree with a job and paycheck at the end of it. In other words, not necessarily poetry. And yet here Cole is, a poetry student in the creative writing master of fine arts program at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. 

As an undergraduate, Cole attended Mansfield University in Pennsylvania, near her hometown of Emmaus, where she majored in English. Tragically, her mother died before Cole finished college – leaving her a small trust fund. It’s not enough to live the high life, but it is enough to make graduate school possible. Cole said the sad event had the feel of destiny, the alignment of stars. To honor her mother, to make her decision to pursue her poetry worth it, failure, she said, is not an option. 

Nor has it been part of Cole’s SIU story. 

Here’s some of what she has done: won the Roxanna Rivera Memorial Poetry Contest, won the Nancy D. Hargrove Editors’ Prize in Poetry from “Jabberwock Review,” won the Betty Gabehart Prize from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, received a Regional Arts Commission Scholarship to attend the “River Styx” Big River Writers Conference, received two Pushcart Prize nominations, and more than half a dozen other awards. And that’s just 2014. Her list of publications is ever longer. 

She attributes her publication and awards success to her willingness to face rejection – repeatedly. Her work at SIU’s international literary journal “Crab Orchard Review” and with other journals taught her that rejections are more routine than personal. Still, a pile of them can erode self-confidence. 

“People see the victories,” she said about her published work. “But I have eight times as many rejections. They pile up and it can get hard to take, but the secret to getting published really is to send out your work. You can’t be afraid to do that. Your job is to write and submit your work. I believe that, for the pieces a writer has worked really hard on, the reason they don’t get published is because the writer stopped sending it.” 

Cole employs several strategies when she submits her poetry and stories for publication. The overlying strategy is frequency – the more she sends, the more chances for publication she has. But she also pays attention to where she sends her writing, focusing on journals that publish work she admires or for which her poetry would be a good fit. She advises patience -- which can be difficult to maintain when a single poem racks up multiple rejections. Finally, she boosts her confidence with a sort of method acting or performance art. When she sends her poetry, she casts herself in the persona of “Emily Rose Cole – Poet,” not “Emily Rose Cole – Student.” 

Her upbringing in a musical family helped prepare her to face the unique challenges of the arts – laying out for public scrutiny what one holds most dear. Her father plays hammered dulcimer with DayBreak, a Celtic and original folk music group now, and played with groups, along with her mother, all Cole’s life. Cole plays penny whistle with DayBreak now, but previously toured with the Bach Choir of Bethlehem (Pa.), to which she brought several years of classical voice training. In fact, she is as proud of her music accomplishments as she is of her poetry. Her debut folk album “I Wanna Know,” is available on both iTunes and Amazon and includes several original songs. 

“Part of my motivation is that I really do feel I should be doing this. If this were a story, what I’m doing would be within the logical plot sequence,” Cole said. “I like to think my mother would be proud of me.” 

Allison Joseph, head of the creative writing master of fine arts program at SIU, said Cole is both inspired and inspirational. 

“Emily is one of those people who sees opportunity in everything,” Joseph said. “Whether it is inspiration for a poem or a song, she’s inventive and constantly working to see the possibilities in everything.” 

Judy Jordan, associate professor in the MFA program, agrees, adding that Cole is exceptionally hard working. She noted receiving a text from an unknown number apologizing for missing an English department reception because the texter was ‘home writing poems.’ 

“I knew immediately and without a second of hesitation that the text was from Emily,” Jordan said. 

Cole has a year remaining at SIU. Besides her success with publishing her work, she’s been a feature at readings, an assistant at SIU’s Young Writers Workshop, an editorial staff member and a graduate teaching assistant. She is a member of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and Sigma Tau Delta, and she served as a representative on the Graduate and Professional Student Council at SIU.