In many ways, distinguished poet Thomas McGrath and Rick Watson, of the humanities department at Minot State University, could not have been more different. In others, they were kindred spirits.
"We shouldn't even have been able to be friends," recalled Watson, a contributor to a recent book celebrating McGrath, who died in 1990.
Watson was an ordained Lutheran minister. The poet McGrath was North Dakota-born but had lived all over the world, had belonged to the Communist party and had little interest in Christianity.
Andrea Johnson/MDN - - Rick Watson, of Minot State University’s humanities department, holds a book about North Dakota poet Thomas McGrath. Watson wrote an essay about his friend McGrath that is included in the book.
They first met when Watson interviewed McGrath for a weekly television program he was working for at the time. The two men spoke for about nine hours and ended up keeping in touch after that and became friends.
"He was always encouraging me in my writing, song writing, poetry," said Watson, and McGrath ended up becoming something of a mentor.
Watson said his essay in the book "Thomas McGrath: Start the Poetry Now!" is a musing on how the poet with Communist sympathies influenced the Lutheran minister to be a better person.
A public reading of the book will be held at Oct. 30 at 2 p.m. in Zandbroz Variety: A Truly Independent Bookstore at 420 Main Street in Fargo. The collection is currently available at Zandbroz or through the PULM Web site at (www.PULM.fr) The book will also be available in limited quantities at Main Street Books in Minot.
Watson and North Dakota poet Larry Woiwode will be on hand to discuss the book and other topics at an event at Main Street Books Nov. 6 from 3 to 5 p.m. There will also be an event Nov. 7 at 7 p.m. in MSU's Aleshire Theater, where Watson and Woiwode will give readings, perform songs and discuss what makes people stay in North Dakota.
Watson said he tried to make his account a testimony about what kind of man McGrath was.
"He was a roughneck and a rabble-rouser and a labor union troublemaker in the 1930s," said McGrath, adding that McGrath looked and seemed like a man out of the Old American West, a "gunslinger with a heart of gold."
When McGrath heard how Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had terrorized his own people, he disavowed any sympathy for the Soviet leadership, said Watson, but McGrath retained his sympathy for the common man. McGrath still became infuriated when he saw or heard about people being mistreated.
McGrath's writing was influenced by growing up in Sheldon, N.D. He wrote about working people and farmers and the land and people trying to make a way of life for themselves in spite of impossible conditions.
Though he had no interest in religion, Watson said McGrath was one of the best men he knew "a sweet, loving, saintly kind of person."
The book appears as part of Presses Universitaires de la Mediteranee's Profiles of American Author series. It includes critical analysis, memoir, interviews and a biography of Thomas McGrath's early life. It is edited by Pamela Sund, a long-time friend and student of McGrath's, who lives in Fargo. Assistant editor Vincent Dussol is a French McGrath scholar, professor, and writer who lives in Montpellier, France.
Contributors to the collection are Studs Terkel, Robert Bly, Woiwode, Dale Jacobson, Mark Vinz, Reginald Gibbons, Michael Anania, Alice McGrath, Linda McCarrison, David Pink, Sterling Plumpp, Lewis Lubka, Jack Beeching, Sergio Ramirez, Claribel Alegria, David Martinson, Watson, Dussol and Sund.
McGrath wrote for more than 50 years on themes of love, work and political justice. His North Dakota childhood figures prominently in his book-length work "Letter to an Imaginary Friend." He won a number of awards and was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He born on a farm near Sheldon in 1916 and died in Minneapolis in 1990.
Sund said the book might also eventually be sold at Amazon.com. As of Monday morning, the book was still not available through that site.