By Kelsey Block
The Center for Poetry welcomed writers and teachers Rick Mulkey and Susan Tekulve for round two of the Fall Writing Series. Mulkey is the author of five collections of poetry and Tekulve is a short story writer and the author of the novel, In the Garden of Stone. Currently, Mulkey and Tekulve teach in the English department at Converse College in South Carolina. The pair visited East Lansing for three days last week, conducting workshops, visiting classes and performing a joint-reading.
The couple has been married for 23 years, but Mulkey and Tekulve said they don’t often share their work with one another.
“We have our own patterns, we have our own things we do as writers. Sometimes those things cross,” Mulkey said. “We do share a lot of books together, we do share writing, but probably not as much as people imagine. Very early on in our relationship, before we were married, we made the decision to be very careful about sharing our writing and getting feedback from each other … I usually don’t see Susan’s writing until it’s published and she often doesn’t see mine until then.”
Tekulve said she thinks it can be beneficial for married writers to keep their work separate, even though much of the inspiration for their material comes from similar places.
“It’s really a lot easier to have a first reader whom you’re not married to … If you say the wrong thing, it can be taken a lot more personally,” Tekulve said. “We do so many things as a couple, we raised a child, we created three degree programs within the English department that I think it became sort of difficult to be a writing couple along with being a teaching couple and an academic couple as well as raising a child.”
Both authors have been influenced by the time they’ve spent in Appalachia. While Mulkey grew up in Virginia, he said it took traveling to Scotland for him to write about his home.
“When I was in Scotland, there was something about the landscape, there was something about the life, something about the people that felt to me like I knew them and so, while I wasn’t necessarily writing about Scotland, it became a way for me to think about the region I grew up in, and I did start writing about it more, and more personally in a lot of ways, too.”
Tekulve, on the other hand, grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. She said, at first, she didn’t really consider place much in her writing, but her novel changed that.
“In the early part of my career, people were my sense of place. I really didn’t think much about the physical landscape and the setting, but In the Garden of Stone, place is very much a character in the novel. It wasn’t until I discovered the setting of the novel that it started moving forward,” Tekulve said, adding that book was originally set in two different places before she settled on West Virginia. “As I was writing the novel, I was literally living in the novel, going back to Virginia and living in the mountains and listening to people talk. Setting does pretty much everything for the novel, it unifies it, it forms the characters.”
They said they’ve noticed a few differences between fiction and poetry students, as well as graduate and undergraduate students.
“Undergrads are a bit more fearless than my nontraditional students. The traditionally aged students, they’ll put it out there, they’ll write about something that’s pretty deep and pretty personal. They’re willing, and if they’re willing, you can hand them a book and they’ll just drink it up, and they will have some really surprising and interesting insights into fiction,” Tekulve said.
Mulkey says the opposite is often true in poetry.
“My own experience with undergraduate students writing poetry is that they are not fearless enough, they’re a little too worried about being exposed,” Mulkey said.