Artist’s “Red Lineage” sets pattern for poetry

Portraits of participants taken as part Natasha Marin's Red Lineage poetry and art project. (Photos by James Arzente for Natasha Marin.)
Portraits of participants taken as part Natasha Marin’s Red Lineage poetry and art project. (Photos by James Arzente for Natasha Marin.)

My first encounter with the Red Lineage occurred at a monthly meeting for mentors through Young Women Empowered. Natasha Marin, poet, artist, and co-creator of the Seattle People of Color Salon, announced her name,  and then launched into her red poem.

The cadence captured me right away. In just a few lines she delivered an emotional resume, a lineage of family, a history of trauma and resilience, a narrative far more personal and revealing than any standard self introduction. Then she gave us pen and paper and asked us to do the same.

My name is ______red.

My mother’s name is ______red.

My father’s name is ______red.

I come from people who _______.

Remember me.

She didn’t give us long to write. Then we stood and shared our pieces. Because of the repetition each piece seemed to flow into the next as though we were simply stanzas of the same poem.

We read them once individually and then a second time intentionally together, weaving our voice in and out of one another’s narratives, sometimes speaking simultaneously, sometimes a lone voice sailing through the silence, always ending with “Remember me.”

Marin created the concept of the Red Lineage poem, inspired by a childhood activity.

I guess I was thinking about Mad Libs as being really accessible writing tools when we were young, like the kid that could swear up and down had no writing talent could sit on a bus and complete a Mad Lib as a fun activity,” Marin said.

Fresh out of graduate school for English Literature, living in Texas and working on a poetic manuscript about generational violence, Marin said she met “a bunch of the same people from the same place having the same conversations with each other and never engaging with people outside of these academic spheres.”

She wanted to find a fresh way to make poetry more accessible. “I thought if you take poetry and you kind of take the guesswork out of the cadence and line rhythm and sort of the general conceit … like I’ve taken care of that for you, and you just sort of pop in your own ingredients into my algorithm then it will be successful. And sure enough it was.”

For the past 10 years Marin shared the Red Lineage at workshops called “Midnight Tea” that she’s held all over the world, including in Greece, France, China, India, Thailand, Finland, Cambodia, Germany and has plans to go to Korea and Taipei.

“Art becomes ritual, ritual becomes performance, everyone that is involved … everyone that comes as a guest is involved,” she said. “Midnight Tea is not a spectator sport, it’s a participatory sport.”

I caught up with her in downtown Seattle at the Recovery Café where she is teaching a four-week class through Path with Art. The Recovery Café is a space for people seeking recovery from homelessness, addiction or other challenges.

I was welcomed at the door and invited to share a meal from a lovingly prepared buffet. The space was warm and inviting, painted in rich reds and bronze hues. Marin waved me past the main room, which was bustling with people eating or talking. Inside the classroom each table was covered in collage supplies. One corner was set up like a photography studio and the other held a table stacked with clothes. Her students were already at work. They had completed their Red Lineage poems and were working on collages and self-portraits to accompany their poems.

Lee Smith, a 64-year-old poet, wrapped herself in several plaid shirts for her portrait. After her first introduction to the Red Lineage she wrote her in class piece and then went home and wrote a longer piece. “It made me think about my childhood and my past in relation to the other people here because I’ve taken class with some of these people before,” said Smith.

During my visit, poet and former Seattle Poetry Slam Master Daemond Arrindell dropped by. Marin handed him a stack of poetry written by the class and he read them aloud. As I glanced around at the people in the room trying to match the words to the faces, I realized that more than a poetic Mad Lib Marin has found a form that transcends our espoused identities and returns us to the basics of our humanity. It’s an equalizer.

“I think the key is that people need to feel human. It’s really important. And whether you have a place to stay or not should not determine whether you get to feel like a person every day,” Marin said. “In the Red Lineage we are all family, we’re all extended family. You’re not red, you’re absolutely never red, you’re ‘couldn’t-stand-the-color’ red, you’re blue, indigo, purple, green red. You’re still my cousin. Somehow we’re related because we’re in this red family. We’re connected.”

This spring, Marin will be partnering with Young Women Empowered, Hedgebrook and the Seattle Art Museum to bring the Red Lineage to life. She invites anyone and everyone to submit their Red Lineages to