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La Tray Selected State’s Next Poet Laureate

Chris La Tray didn’t start out wanting to write poetry. He was far more interested in rock n’ roll.

“I was one of those kids who thought I hated poetry because it was incomprehensible, dead white guys. So much is obtuse,” said La Tray, who grew up in Frenchtown and is an enrolled member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. After graduating high school in 1986, he moved to Seattle, Wash., where he began playing in rock bands.

Along the way, La Tray found his way to poetry. A Métis storyteller, he shares his life and observations of the world through writing. He’s been back in Montana since 2005, and on Monday, he received a call from Gov. Greg Gianforte, informing La Tray that he’d been selected as Montana’s next poet laureate.

La Tray will serve a two-year term, succeeding Missoula- based poet Mark Gibbons, who was named Montana poet laureate in 2021.

“As a naturalist, a humanist, a humorist, a musician, and a descendant of old Montanans before Montana had a name, I look forward to seeing (and hearing) what Chris does for the next couple years as the keeper of our poetic fire,” Gibbons told Montana Free Press.

The position “recognizes and honors a citizen poet of exceptional talent and accomplishment” with a mission to advance and support poetic arts through outreach to Montana communities, according to the Montana Arts Council. La Tray is the 11th poet to hold this position since it was created by the Montana Legislature in 2005.

“I was all set up for disappointment,” said La Tray, who was a finalist for the position in 2021. “When I did get the call, I was surprised. I don’t know that it really has even sunk in.”

La Tray is a prolific writer whose work is poetically rich and vast, and he explores the connections between the human and natural worlds and the dynamics at work. His work in Native and non-Native communities has shown the power of storytelling and the rich and complicated connection humanity has with the natural world. His first book, “One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large,” won the 2018 Montana Book Award and a 2019 High Plains Book Award. He followed that in 2021 with a book of haiku and haibun poetry, “Descended from a Travel-worn Satchel.”

A memoir titled “Becoming Little Shell” — La Tray’s third book — will be published next year by Milkweed Editions. The book is centered on the efforts of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians of Montana to become federally recognized in 2019. The tribe, made of Ojibwe, Métis, and Cree people in Montana, does not have a reservation and members live throughout the state.

La Tray also publishes “An Irritable Métis,” a weekly newsletter, on Substack, teaches poetry and writing in elementary school classrooms with the Missoula Writing Collaborative and teaches a storytelling class at the University of Montana for the Creative Writing Department.

Montana’s poet laureate is nominated by the public and selected by the governor after poets are narrowed by a committee. It is an honorary position that does not include any compensation.

“Two years ago, I was happy to be a finalist, but I really wanted Gibbons to win,” La Tray told MTFP. “He set a high bar for what a poet laureate can accomplish with poetry.”

Gibbons navigated his term by leveraging digital technology as the country grappled with the pandemic. His legacy includes a video project called “Poets in Montana” that was recorded at Missoula Community Access Television, featuring interviews with writers and poets from around the state.

“My father warned me not to be too proud of anything, but I guess I’d have to say that I am proud to have amassed and archived the voices, stories and poems of 60 poets in Montana that will be available for anyone to explore at their leisure,” Gibbons said. “And one of those poets was Chris La Tray.”

La Tray’s intention as Montana’s next poet laureate is to bring writing and poetry to rural parts of Montana, reservation communities and tribal colleges around the state, as well as into prisons. This work is an extension of La Tray’s work with elementary students on the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes Reservation on behalf of the Missoula Writing Collaborative.

“One of the problems I have with poetry is that it’s been blindfolded and gagged and dragged off to the ivory tower,” said La Tray, who doesn’t come from academia and didn’t attend college. “If you love something, you can pursue it and set your own framework for how to accomplish it. We shouldn’t have to go into a lifetime of debt to do all the things that we want to do.”

La Tray doesn’t consider his efforts as a poet to be a career but as a way of living — what he described as “Anishinaabe worldview.”

“To live an Anishinaabe life is to make every footstep a prayer,” La Tray wrote in his application. Attaching that worldview to poetry, every observable moment can be viewed as a poem, he added. “Serving as poet laureate would allow me to share that perspective with more people, in service to people, which is something our wider community needs.”

La Tray has been writing full-time since 2016, however, for most of his life, he has been a songwriter, playing in rock bands since the late 1980s.

“My goal back then was to be a rock star and write books on the tour bus from city to city,” said La Tray, whose vision has flip-flopped. He’s a full-time writer but still plays in American Falcon, a rock trio that has been together for 20 years. “It is still my first love,” La Tray said.

Though playing in a rock band and reading poetry to an audience are vastly different endeavors, for La Tray they are intertwined. “I’ve never done a reading and have 700 people all hold up cans of beer,” he said. “It’s definitely two different sides of my personality, but also all the years of fronting a rock band has certainly made me comfortable in front of a microphone and in front of people.”

Working as an educator, La Tray said he doesn’t think of himself as a teacher who will improve someone’s writing. “What I care about least is what ends up on the page,” he said. “I would rather stick a pitchfork in the compost of your brain and flip it over a couple times and help you understand that there is shit in there that you can work with.”

A writer by trade and a storyteller by life, La Tray knows there is power in a poem that creates action or spurs someone to look at the world differently.

“Just the change that we are trying to make is poetry,” La Tray said. “It doesn’t have to be words on a page. It’s just a way of living in the world. If you live an Anishinaabe life, every footstep becomes a prayer. If you live a life of poetry, every footstep becomes a poem, every word becomes a poem, every action becomes a poem because you are paying attention and you are caring about what you are paying attention to. Absolutely, it’s the only thing that can change things.”

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