Thursday, April 18, 2024

The laureate rocks

| December 31, 2023 12:00 AM

“‘Tell me, what is it you plan to do / With your one wild and precious life?’” 

I didn’t expect to hear Mary Oliver’s verse from Montana’s poet laureate, and here Chris La Tray recited her “The Summer Day.” We listened, then bent our heads to draw.

I’d been internet sleuthing La Tray for weeks. He seemed to be everywhere but Kalispell. Then I saw he was coming to Flathead Valley Community College late last month for an art and poetry event hosted by Allyson Norwood Bush, of the Montana Art Therapy Association. 

Dozens of people lined the long tables in the auditorium of the Arts & Technology Building. Norwood Bush said 70 people had RSVPed. Clearly there’s pent-up energy in the Flathead for poetry, or art, or both.

For a guy who writes an online newsletter called “An Irritable Métis,” the Frenchtown-raised La Tray comes off as pretty affable. He dresses casually in a plaid shirt, and pulls his long hair back; his beard blazes white in the middle. He looks like he could play bass in a metal band, which he does.

He says that when he got the call that he was appointed Montana’s poet laureate, five years to the day that his “One-Sentence Journal” debut was published, he intended of the two-year assignment “to milk every bit out of it.” 

“I never tried to be a poet until ‘One-Sentence Journal’ came out and people started introducing me that way.

“Poetry is everything,” he said. “This moment is poetry. In order for us to share this we have to be here, we have to be together to raise this creative energy.”

The gist of “One-Sentence Journal” is the payoff of practice, the pursuit of creation, and the idea that small efforts add up. “Just a little bit of time every day can generate a lot of work,” he said, holding up a tall stack of notebooks.

On tour as poet laureate, he often asks high school kids, “How many of you write?” A few hands will go up. Then he asks, “How many of you text?”

He concludes: “We have more poets now than we ever have in the history of the world.” The kids these days write short, topical, and frequently.

The Q&A lit up more aspects of this poet’s life as it careened from pop culture to the personal.

“I burst into big sloppy tears when I saw Lily Gladstone in the trailer for ‘Killers of the Flower Moon,’” La Tray said, who’d seen her cut her teeth in productions at the University of Montana. “But that movie is not for Indians. 

“I don’t need to see those degradations all over again.” 

A member of the audience asked, “Would you rather those things not come out?” 

Instead of Scorsese fare and Ken Burns’ take on “The American Buffalo,” La Tray wished for “Reservation Dogs” on a bigger screen and “more representation of native peoples’ stories by native people.”

The questioner asked again, “Would you rather those things not come out?” After a pause, La Tray said, “Yes.”

Before La Tray read his poetry and that of others while we got to art, he fielded another question: 

“What does ‘laureate’ mean?” 

“‘Awesome,’” La Tray said, then with a big smile: “I should know the answer to that, shouldn’t I?” 

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at