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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

French Poet-in-Residence Leads Students Out of the Classroom and into the Streets to Help Inspire their Writing

By Betsy Hnath

Thanks to Poet-in-Residence Hector Ruiz, Old Dominion University French students have a new muse for their work: Their own city.

Ruiz, a professor in French literature at Montmorency College in Montreal, Quebec, recently completed his week-long residency at Old Dominion. His work promotes looking to one's environment to provide the inspiration for poetry. He believes the best way to do this is on foot.

Peter Schulman, professor of French and international studies, helped arrange the residency after traveling to Canada and participating in workshops with the poet. Schulman wanted others to learn the same technique.

"When you are just describing things in front of you, it can get stale. The minute you get outside, your perception changes," said Schulman. "When you're in a classroom, you get used to a rhythm. Getting out of the classroom wakes you up a little bit."

To illustrate the technique, on a recent 50-degree day, the students in Schulman's Introduction to French Composition class, led entirely in French by Ruiz, abandoned their desks and took to the streets.

When the students strolled toward the intersection separating the campus from a more industrial block, Ruiz encouraged them to tap into any emotions they might be experiencing.

"Sometimes it can be scary venturing off campus," Ruiz said. "As you cross the pavement that divides one space from the other, describe the feelings you have in that no-man's land."

Students scribbled notes on their paper, saving ideas for later use.

On the next block, filled with warehouses and industrial spaces, the students' eyes darted around, scanning the scene for the small details that might eventually inform their creative work.

Ruiz stopped the group in front of what looked like an industrial repair shop. He pointed out a miniature American flag and a small, metal sculpture of a human figure, both resting on the shop's mailbox.

"Every day, anywhere, you can be surprised," Ruiz said to the class, "like these two items that look like they don't belong together or belong where they've been placed. It's like a little bit of craziness to put in our day. That's what we're looking for: a little bit of craziness."

To the entire group's surprise, the repair shop was actually a retail shop, piled floor-to-ceiling with random items including a vintage toy car and an outdated air conditioner.

"What would your character say about this?" Ruiz asked in French. "Let what you saw help define what you write."

For student Jennifer Rost, a French major minoring in Japanese, the experience was one she'll take with her.

"The warehouse surprised me. At first it was inviting, but I got nervous as I got deeper," Rost said. "I could absolutely use it in my writing because it pulled the most emotion out of me. The neighborhood is pretty, but fear is a stronger emotion, so it could produce more eloquent writing."

In addition to his time with students, Ruiz did a reading of his work alongside Old Dominion University poet Thomas Yuill.

He also conducted walking tours of portions of Norfolk and Portsmouth for residents of those cities.

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