Vadnais Heights poet Todd Boss and Bulgarian artist Maja Spasova seek stories to mark the fifth anniversary of the I-35W bridge disaster.
On Aug. 1, 2007, Todd Boss crossed the Interstate 35W bridge just 20 minutes before it fell into the river. He drove home to Vadnais Heights blissfully unaware of the tragedy until his cousin called his cellphone, asking anxiously, "Are you all right?"
Of course, Boss said. He was fine. Why?
It wasn't until years later that Boss realized how profoundly the disaster had affected him -- as it had almost certainly affected thousands of Minnesotans. The bridge collapse at rush hour that day killed 13 people, injured 145, and left a hole as wide as the Mississippi River in the freeway. It was what Boss calls "a huge civic tragedy." It's something, he said, that the whole community has suffered -- whether or not they were there at that moment.
Now Boss has channeled that tragedy into art, working with London-based Bulgarian visual artist Maja Spasova on an installation to be unveiled Aug. 1, the fifth anniversary.
The installation is still a work in progress, but a few things are known: Part of it will involve 35 short poems that Boss has written. Part of it will involve oral histories from ordinary people. Boss and Spasova will spend three days at Minneapolis Central Library this month -- April 27 to 29 -- recording anyone who cares to talk to them about that day.
"Just capturing the stories of ordinary people is itself an installation," said Rachel Fulkerson, communications director of Friends of the Hennepin County Library.
Fulkerson said the library has long wanted to work with Boss and was happy to donate space for the recording sessions.
"We're excited to help him promote it, but it really is his project," she said. "We're just providing space and helping get the word out."
"It'll be interesting to hear what people have to say," Boss said. "When I bring it up, when I say, 'This is what I've been working on,' everywhere I go, I get a story. People want to talk about it. Collectively, are we still angry about it? Are we still nervous about it? Are we still feeling the loss of it? Are we maybe feeling the lingering peril of a repeat event on another bridge somewhere? There's so many ways to feel about the 35W bridge."
People who weren't injured and who didn't lose loved ones have sort of stood quietly on the sidelines all this time, Boss said.
"But for whatever reason, they still have this in them," he said. "They experienced it, too."
Boss and Spasova met several years ago at an artists' retreat in Chicago.
"I kind of dig her stuff, and she really dug mine, and it was like, let's work together," he said. "When I started writing these 35W bridge poems, I saw they were coming together as a group, as a project, and I thought that they were something that could form the basis of a collaborative installation."
Spasova began e-mailing drawings and ideas, "and it was like, 'Cool, Maja, you go,'" Boss said.
Boss' I-35W poems are written in a very vertical way -- 35 words each, one word per line. "I was giving a lecture about two years ago about how content and form marry in my poems," he said. "And I was saying the physical act of reading is muscular. It happens in the eye. We're feeling those sensations. The shape of a poem has a real impact, a real effect.
"So I started thinking of the act of dropping, falling from a height, and so that's how the form was kind of born. One word on a line -- I liked how that made me, as a reader of them, sort of drop through space. I liked that sensation."
Boss has written two collections of poetry, both published by W.W. Norton. His second, "Pitch," came out this year. It was when he was re-reading his own work, choosing the poems for "Pitch," that he realized that many of them had a theme that tied into the 35W disaster.
"Now when I give readings, I kind of preface the whole thing by talking about the bridge collapse," he said. "It puts the whole collection in context. Just the notion of things losing their kilter, losing their gravity. The idea of disaster looming."