After John Cage: 'Writing through' Carlyle and Emerson

An online writing project with writer Victoria Miguel
191 mesostic poems 
10 July-19 September 2020

Following our recent online workshops led by Victoria Miguel, a writer and specialist in the work of artist and composer John Cage (19121992, we have been applying Cage’s process of ‘writing through’  a method of using mesostic poetry to transform existing texts  to letters exchanged between the celebrated Scottish author and essayist Thomas Carlyle and the American writer Ralph Waldo Emerson. A mesostic is similar to an acrostic except that rather than using a key name or phrase that runs down the left margin, in a mesostic this key name or phrase runs through the middle. Using the same key, JOHN CAGE, we created 191 eight-line mesostic poems, mirroring the 191 known letters exchanged between the two writers from Boston, London, and Dunscore and Thornhill in Dumfries and Galloway. 

Emerson visited the Carlyles at their home in Craigenputtock, Dunscore, Dumfriesshire in August 1833, and his life-long correspondence with Thomas Carlyle influenced fellow writer Henry David Thoreau, who wrote about Carlyle (and briefly about the Dumfriesshire landscape) whilst famously staying on Walden Pond on land owned by Emerson. John Cage returned repeatedly to the writings of Henry David Thoreau as a source for his practice of ‘writing through.’ 

Cage’s process of ‘writing through’ has been applied to the correspondence of Carlyle and Emerson, using chance and the computer programme IC (developed for John Cage) to determine how many and which of the letters we would each use as source material for our writing through. 

Between 10 July and 21 August, we have released the 191 mesostic poems in four volumes as short audiovisual recordings. The first volume was read by our Engagement Assistant Lucy Dale.

Volume 1 – Friday 10 July
Volume 2 – Friday 24 July
Volume 3 – Friday 7 August
Volume 4 – Friday 21 August

All four volumes have been brought together in a pamphlet, which we are releasing as a digital publication on 5 September, John Cage’s birthday.

The participants are Louise Barrington, Marina Castledine, Lucy Dale, Ailsa Dickson, Tina Fiske, Clare Forsythe, JoAnne McKay, Sophie Midgley, Victoria Miguel, Tabitha Mudaliar, David O, Iris Pitman, Calum Rennie and Carolyn Yates

191 mesostics poems read in four volumes
Total running time: 47mins 59 sec

Volume 1 – read by Lucy Dale, Engagement Assistant

Volume 2 – read by Penny Gonlag, Programme Assistant

Volume 3 – read by Lydia McMillan, Gallery Assistant

Volume 4 – read by Ines Wood, Gallery Assistant

Victoria Miguel is a writer. Her work has been published and presented by Triple Canopy, Summerhall, and Glasgow International. She worked for the John Cage Trust (2001-2007) and has been a specialist in Cage’s work, creating unique performances, for more than a decade. In 2019, she produced ‘Mewantemooseicday’ 2019, a day-long celebration of Cage and Merce Cunningham developed in collaboration with the University of Glasgow, The Glasgow School of Art, and Dance Studio Scotland at Clyde College