By Abigail Lauten-Scrivner, UM News Service
MISSOULA – Chris La Tray was only a college freshman for a couple months before he packed up and left the University of Montana for Seattle with a buddy, inspired to depart his home state by schemes of becoming a rockstar.
It turns out fronting rock bands can be the consummate education for turning into one of the state’s most lauded writers.
La Tray, a Métis storyteller from Frenchtown and member of the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians, recently was named Montana’s new poet laureate. The two-year role honors a writer of exceptional talent and accomplishment, according to the Montana Arts Council.
“I took a semester here at the University of Montana, and that's the extent of my formal education,” he said. “Here I am as an example of someone who just did what I wanted to do.”
La Tray’s informal education eventually led him to pen two collections of poetry, “One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large” in 2018, which won the Montana Book Award, and “Descended From a Travel-worn Satchel: Haiku & Haibun” in 2021. His new book, “Becoming Little Shell,” publishes next summer.
Last fall, he returned to the university he left decades ago. La Tray instructs a UM class that calls upon both his writing expertise and his experience playing live music in front of a crowd. In Creative Writing 425, La Tray helps good writers become better storytellers.
Through years of attending poetry readings and book presentations, La Tray witnessed how good stories can be told poorly. The class helps writers elevate their stage presence a little closer to the electricity felt between a live audience and performer during a rock concert.
“A lot of people are really, really bad at it,” La Tray said. “Poetry should be exciting, literature should be exciting.”
Open to undergraduate and graduate students of all majors, the class is not a writing course, La Tray tells students on their very first day. Rather, students learn to take what they write and make it compelling to a live audience, whatever their fields may be.
While the course helps fine tune oral speaking skills and mitigate ticks like “ums” or distracting foot taps, La Tray also wants to show students that they can be accomplished in their craft while “blowing up the notion that a poet is a patched-elbow academic,” as he puts it. Students can present any topic of their choice in class, but anything resembling small talk is effectively banned – only honesty and “real stuff” are discussed.
“Sometimes it’s hard and we get into triggering topics. Those are things that we need to take on,” he said. “I hope students have fun with it. I hope they feel like they’re better at getting in front of people and less frightened about it.”
The class culminates in a live storytelling event at the end of the semester where graduate students must tell a story, while undergraduates need only attend.
“Last year, it was phenomenal, they did such a good job,” La Tray said. “I have high hopes that will happen again.”
With the addition of the poet laureate title, La Tray accepts that this fall and the next couple years will be busier than he’s accustomed to. As poet laureate, La Tray will work to foster the poetic arts across Montana.
“What I mostly want to do is go out to places people don’t usually go to,” La Tray said.
In prioritizing small towns, reservation schools and tribal colleges, La Tray hopes to help Native youth take a risk expressing themselves through story, either verbally or on the page.
La Tray didn’t set out with the goal of becoming Montana’s poet laureate, but he recognizes the honor as an opportunity to be an out-loud and visible representation of a Métis person and member of the Little Shell Tribe, which wasn’t federally recognized until 2019.
“Nobody had really heard about us prior to getting federal recognition,” La Tray said. “It's important for me to be out in the world as a Little Shell person.”
La Tray’s work as poet laureate furthers his greater hopes for the impact of all his work: being a good ancestor. Just how to be a good ancestor, what that means and what it looks like are things La Tray thinks about constantly. He teaches a writing workshop with Missoula-based Freeflow Institute titled “Good Ancestors” that explores the question of how to honor those who came before and will come after.
In his roles as a university instructor and Indigenous person, La Tray holds the truths of the past, present and future at once. Shepherding a new generation of writers into becoming better storytellers taps into La Tray’s passion, energizes his own craft and elevates the visibility of his Little Shell Tribe and Métis identities. But it also brings into contrast the realities of his ancestors before him.
“As an Indigenous person, I value education but I also want to remind people that schools and education were one of the first tools used against us to break us of our language and our cultures,” La Tray said. “We're a generation removed from where you hid (being Indigenous) if you could.”
“We have had to overcome so much just to stay alive culturally at all,” he added. “Now it's time for us to recognize the sacrifices that our ancestors had to make to keep us alive and reclaim some of that back.”
For La Tray, part of that reclamation is using his platform to be a good ancestor.
Shortly after La Tray was announced as poet laureate, he spoke at a Métis memorial unveiling in Lewistown, which was settled by Métis families. They lay in unmarked graves for over 120 years until a memorial was dedicated to those founders this month. La Tray said it was an honor to speak at the celebration and use his new title to elevate his ancestors’ history.
“It gives me that opportunity to tell the world, ‘Hey, I’m poet laureate, and I'm Little Shell,’” he said. “I'm just trying to do the best I can with the opportunities I have, and I hope that inspires somebody else.”
Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659, firstname.lastname@example.org.