Chris La Tray draws large Zoom audience
April 15, 2021
SEELEY LAKE – Chris La Tray's website identifies him as a Métis writer and storyteller but publication of his "One-Sentence Journal: Short Poems and Essays from the World at Large" projected him into the limelight as a poet. La Tray was the guest speaker for Alpine Artisans' third virtual Open Book Club April 10, attended by approximately 50-55 people. Along with reading from "One-Sentence Journal," he also read two as yet unpublished poems "Super Blue" and "Comet" and an essay entitled "Broken Open" from his "weeklyish" newsletter "An Irritable Métis." The session concluded with La Tray answering questions about his writing journey.
Fellow poet Mark Gibbons introduced La Tray to the Zoom audience. Gibbons said he first learned of him from reading reviews La Tray wrote for the Missoula Independent. The two poets eventually met, discovered they shared a number of things in common, including their worldviews, and began meeting semi-regularly in Missoula.
That their admiration for one another was mutual is attested by the first poem La Tray read, which referred to those semi-regular meetings, "Never underestimate the uplifting power of an hour or two in good company at a dumpy bar."
La Tray called Gibbons "my own personal poet laureate" and read his favorite Gibbons poem "My Life as a Capitalist." He also invited Gibbons to read another of his poems.
As for his own poems, La Tray said, "I never considered myself a poet until people started calling me one."
He said he still thinks of himself primarily as a long-form writer "but more and more, poetry is what I love to do."
La Tray does not have a degree in Creative Writing, as is the norm for poets in this area, nor does he have education in poetic meter or other technicalities of the trade. "One-Sentence Journal," consists of simple observations he made throughout 2016-2018. He then turned the sentences into short poems.
"Sometimes," he said, "I feel like my poems are just things that start out as little essays and I just hit 'return' in a few unusual places to create line breaks."
When he edits his reformatted sentence, he said he listens for the rhythm. For him, the rhythm is what makes the poem work. And work it does, as evidenced by the awards collected by "One-Sentence Journal": 2018 Montana Book Award, 2019 High Plains Book Award for Best First Book and Finalist in 2019 High Plains Book Award for Best Book by Indigenous Writer.
La Tray has another book coming out next year with Milkweed Press. "Becoming Little Shell" is an exploration of his family and its relationship to the Little Shell Tribe of the Chippewa Indians at a time when the tribe was not yet federally recognized. La Tray said growing up, his dad denied his family had any Native American lineage. It was only his grandparents who talked to him about it.
La Tray began digging into his family history to find out who he was and who his people were. He said an entire world unfolded for him and changed his whole relationship with where and how he grew up. The Little Shell story is one few people have ever heard. It is one La Tray wants to tell, weaving his own family's story throughout it.
La Tray confessed to one worry concerning the Little Shell book. It is so dissimilar to his "One-Sentence Journal," he fears it will not have what people loved in the earlier book. However, the positive reception of a recent presentation he gave about the Little Shell tribe made him believe that his unique voice is still reaching people.
Gibbons commented, "You need to just write until you are speaking in your honest voice, whatever that may be, and people are going to like that..."
Both poets agreed that once writers find their authentic voice, they connect with people. It does not really matter what literary vehicle they use.
Another activity the two poets have in common is their participation in the Missoula Writing Collaborative, which places writers in programs where they can help young people learn to express themselves through their writings. Though Gibbons has been in the organization for more than 20 years, this is La Tray's first year. He facilitates four fourth-grade classes in Ronan.
La Tray said, "Whatever they're getting out of it must be a fraction of what I'm getting out of it. Kids are so much more wide open with their emotions. We [adults] are so uptight about telling anybody that we love them. These kids come up and they tell me they love me. Where do we lose that? Dealing with these children has been such a great re-immersion into what it means to be human."
Gibbons added, "So, so rewarding. It just fills you back up, these kids do."
Discussion of the children prompted La Tray to read a piece entitled "Broken Open" about his experience in the program. The essay begins "Breaking ourselves open is hard."
After a brief orientation to the Collaborative, it continues, "What I am teaching them is to observe, to take note, to try to live lives that are also poetry, because that to me it is what it boils down to. To open wide and observe the world and reflect it back through words on a page. To love the world and themselves and each other."
The entire essay is available on La Tray's website newspaper, "An Irritable Métis" [christlatray.substack.com/p/broken-open]
The essay continues, "The thing about being broken open, a lot of love pours through, too. Love coming in and intense love reflected back out." The essay ends: "Maybe being the strange gray men who shuffle into these classrooms is the way we do our part to make the world better. It's worth trying."
In the question-and-answer period, La Tray offered insights into his writing methods. He writes 10 minutes every day. As he explains it, "When you establish a practice where you're going to be at a certain place at a certain time, the gods find you."
Additionally, he always has two or three small notebooks with him to jot down things he thinks of, triggered by something he saw or heard. Sometimes he uses his iPhone recorder for the same purpose. He said people tend to think there's no way they could forget the genius idea that just came to them but it really doesn't take much to displace it.
Someone asked about his research methods, primarily for the Little Shell book. He said there is really only one historical record of the tribe, though he was able to find bits and pieces in other books about Montana. He also spoke extensively to the Little Shell elders. La Tray said he delights in small discoveries that lead him back through history to little known details about his people.
La Tray said he particularly values how writing can link people to other people across time and culture. "Those things that connect us," he said. "That's what I love about poetry and literature."