Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.
Chris La Tray is a Métis storyteller based in Montana. He is the author of “One-Sentence Journal,” winner of the 2018 Montana Book Award and 2019 High Plains Book Award for Best First Book, and “Descended From a Travel-worn Satchel: Haiku & Haibun,” a book of poems and poem-prose. La Tray writes poetry “that can be understood by just about anybody,” an idea he expands on in his weekly newsletter, Irritable Métis.
In August of 2023, La Tray was named the next Montana Poet Laureate and plans to bring poetry to Montana communities big and small during his yearlong tenure.
I first met La Tray in early 2020 through another wonderful writer, Ana Maria Spagna, and have been pestering him for writing advice ever since. Enjoy our meandering conversation about authoring a newsletter, the freedom that comes from writing without rules, and who poetry belongs to, below.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Claire Carlson, The Daily Yonder: Can you introduce yourself and tell me where you’re calling from right now?
Chris La Tray: I’m on the west side of Missoula, Montana, right up against the railroad tracks in an old, I think it was a grain building, the Ceretana building, which is just this old rundown warehouse. I have a writing space in it. It’s a very working class neighborhood. I love writing from here.
As far as who I am, well, I’m a Métis storyteller, I’m Anishinaabe, I’m enrolled with the Little Shell Tribe of Chippewa Indians. And what that means is the topic of my next book, which will be out by this time next year, called “Becoming Little Shell.” It’s my reconnection or first time connection with who my people are on my dad’s side, which was something that was largely kept from me growing up, even though it was kind of hanging there in the shadows.
DY: You grew up in rural Montana. How has that informed your writing?
CL: I grew up in Frenchtown, which was a different Frenchtown than it is now. And after being gone for many years, I’m back in the same general area. I can see the mill or what’s left of it where my dad worked for 43 or 44 years from my front porch. And I’m living in a development that used to just be a big hay field. And I watched this country road that I’ve driven most of my life just spread farther and farther out and more and more fields get turned into developments with these big houses that nobody here can afford to live in. So it definitely informs me because I see my people being forced out.
The simple answer is that [being rural] is the foundation of who I am, just this country boy who grew up doing 4-H and things like that. It’s foundational as an Indigenous person because as Indigenous people, we are rural people, and that is something I make every effort to remain connected to.
DY: You’ve been writing a newsletter called Irritable Métis for the past three years. How has it changed since you first started it?
CL: The very first post was I think the night or the following night after the Little Shell received their federal recognition, which was in 2019. So I think I wrote a post maybe in January 2020 about that. And the original plan was that I was going to kind of write it as a companion piece to “Becoming Little Shell,” but it quickly became something else. Now it’s almost starting to come back around that way as the book looms closer.
DY: For the Daily Yonder, I’ve been doing a weekly newsletter called Keep it Rural that is all about the latest rural news. But I’ve noticed in recent months that it’s been changing so that I’m almost more of a character in it. It’s feeling more like “from the desk of Claire,” which sounds very pretentious, but that’s sort of how I’ve been thinking about it. And I can also feel that my writing’s been getting a lot better.
Do you feel like having that regular newsletter schedule has been improving your own writing, or has there been any noticeable evolution to your work?
CL: Imagine if you’re running and you start out jogging and you can barely make it up the driveway, but you just keep doing it. Pretty soon you’re running up and back and the next thing you’re doing a mile around the neighborhood. But next thing you know you’re running an ultramarathon. It’s the result of just daily in and out, not just the physical act of writing, but the constant churn in the back of your mind of the ideas that may not show up in the piece, but inform it.
So out of the 90,000 words or whatever in “Becoming Little Shell,” there’s probably another 500,000 words of all the stuff that I learned or read or talked to people about that is stacked up underneath every single word.
So I think it’s a great practice and I think you absolutely should view it as “from the desk of Claire” or whatever, because you’re kind of building an audience and that’s never a bad thing. I think anything we write, even if it’s a freaking email, we should write it as best we can.
DY: You were just named Montana Poet Laureate (congratulations, by the way.) In online biographies, you’ve been identified as a writer, a poet, a reporter. I’m wondering how all of those identities intersect for you because right now it seems like poetry is kind of the thing that will be on the horizon, and has probably been in your thoughts a lot recently. But do you feel like you’re all of those things at once, or how do they relate to each other, and how can you be a poet and a journalist, for example?
CL: I tell people I’m a storyteller and that’s what it says in my signature – Métis storyteller and Montana Poet Laureate. But for me it’s all storytelling. Sometimes I choose to tell stories in the form of poems. Sometimes I choose to tell stories in the form of a 90,000-word memoir. Sometimes I tell stories in the form of a piece of journalism. Sometimes I tell stories sitting at the fire or in a museum conference room in front of 30 or 40 kindergartners and sometimes it’s walking out on stage in front of 800 people to just tell a story. To me, it’s all different paths to the same goal, and that’s to reach people with some kind of a story. And I don’t make any distinctions. And I think it probably irritates some of my poetry colleagues, my fellow poets.
To me, it’s not any different. I’m trying to bring an Indigenous perspective to it. And our stories predate writing anything down. So that doesn’t make them any worse than stuff that has survived for a couple thousand years because it was written down. That doesn’t mean that Gilgamesh or Beowulf are better stories than anything we were telling, we just weren’t a written culture and who knows what great things have been lost to time. But we also still have these great stories that have been handed down across generations to retell, creation stories and trickster stories and all those things. And to me, that is what everything is and everything else is a result of that.
So I’m just saying I’m planting a flag here in that old ground on that tiny little mountain that used to be enormous but is still here. And I just choose not to make any distinctions.
DY: Right. It seems like there’s this impulse to categorize everything, at least in the way that our society operates now. And I think that’s always been my struggle is figuring out what identity I should claim, especially when it doesn’t feel separate from other pieces of me.
I was listening to the interview you did with Rick White for the Freeflow Institute’s podcast and you talked about how poetry has been claimed by the academic world, and that often means that people’s eyes glaze over at the mention of poetry because of this huge misconception about what poetry is and where it belongs. Can you talk about that a little bit more – where does poetry belong and how are you wanting to attach that concept to the work you do as Poet Laureate?
CL: I think it belongs to everyone. Everybody can be a poet. And I think so many people’s perspective of what a poem is has been jaded by years of academic education where all we were reading was old dead guys writing in a form of English that has also been dead for a few decades, and people can’t relate to that. You can’t relate to “thees” and “thous” and “forsooths” when we don’t talk like that anymore. And so when I get in front of people, and what I tell the kids that I teach on the reservation, I say, whatever ends up on the page to me is the least important part of this whole process. I want people to start paying attention to the world around them and let that get under their skin and let that get in their minds and their hearts and churn around a little bit.
And then whatever ends up on the page, in whatever form it is, is going to be beautiful because it’s their experience, their entirely unique experience, and that is what is worth sharing with the world. Nobody’s experience is more important than yours or mine or less important than yours or mine. And I think people sometimes feel like they need permission to do that. And where I don’t think they need permission, I’m still happy to give it to them. I’m still happy to encourage people that whatever you have to say has meaning and poetry happens to be a good way to share that because you can make it short. You don’t have to write in complete sentences. You can do whatever you want with it. And there’s all kinds of forms if you want to impose rules on yourself, but you don’t have to.
The only form I really know is Haiku and I enjoy that because sometimes I like the constraint that a couple simple rules will put on me, but that’s not 100% necessary for me to do what I do. I mean, I kind of found that form on my own by just trying to do things short and to the point.
There’s just so many ways you can go about doing it that when we start talking about all the official designations and the rules and you can do this and you can’t do that, that’s when people’s eyes start to roll up in their head. But if you tell someone, just write three sentences about something you remember yesterday, they can get excited. And then it’s like we opened this conversation with first you can’t walk up the driveway, then you can run to the end and you can go to the end and back and next thing you know you’re on a mountaintop running some ridiculous ultramarathon and you only did it by doing it one step at a time, but you just kept showing up to do it.
And it’s incredibly hard, but it’s also incredibly easy.
DY: A lot of what you write about involves the natural world or the non-human. One of the pieces from “One-Sentence Journal” that I really like is you talking about finding a snake in the process of eating a fish and it takes a really long time, but that meal is probably going to last that snake a week. And that just sounded like one of the most amazing encounters. So why does that stuff stand out to you?
CL: I think because the outdoors and my non-human relatives are the places that I go to recharge and because I love it so much, of course that’s what I’m most likely to write about. As an Anishinaabe person who’s not surrounded by Anishinaabe people and I don’t have elders to learn our culture from, I came to the realization that being outdoors and just trying to listen to the world speak to me the way it has spoken to my ancestors for thousands of years was the most direct way I could get to try and experience that. So that’s a big part of why I try and spend as much time out as I can. That doesn’t mean I turn my back on my human relatives, but it’s just more peaceful to me out away from the hustle and bustle and just kind of close to the world nature of our human civilization. I love being out so much.
DY: Has anything stuck out to you recently in the non-human or human world that you feel like might show up in a piece of writing at some point in the future?
CL: Yeah, I think my next book is largely going to be about the non-human world and how traditionally that was so much part of our world in ways that we’ve turned our backs on.
I’ve spent a lot of time in the last couple of years in Yellowstone National Park and I’ve had some encounters there with wildlife that have been particularly profound in a spiritual way, and I’m kind of riding the wave that was inspired and largely created by Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work. I feel like that’s a direction my next project is going to go, and that’s part of the reason why I’m so eager to get the creative part of “Becoming Little Shell” behind me and have it all in production so I can start thinking, is there a book here in these handful of [nonhuman] encounters I have? And figure out how I can write about it and relate to this kind of upsurge it feels like culture is having with recognizing that, hey, maybe these Indigenous people that lived on this land for thousands of years knew something about how to live on this land. I think that relationship is going to be part of my work as long as I’m on this earth.
This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.