A city speaks, line by lane

Thanks to a little poetic guidance, the streets of Melbourne have a profound effect on Louise Southerden.

Melbourne and I have always been wary of each other. On Melbourne's part, it could be because Sydney is my home town, my first love, all sparkling ocean and blond beaches, ferries on the harbour, the gleaming fins of the Opera House. For my part, I've always felt a bit lost in Melbourne's city streets and laneways, unable to tell where north (or the sea) is, not really "getting" the place.

Things are different now, however, thanks to a new self-guided poetry tour created by spoken-word artist Eleanor Jackson. Launched last September as part of the Overload Poetry Festival, the tour was inspired by Jackson's work on community mapping projects in Papua New Guinea and brings together 21 Melbourne-based performance poets, each of whom has penned a poem about a landmark in the city centre.

"Melbourne's planners did a great job of making the city look organised and regular," Jackson says. "But the diversity of everyone's stories is testament to just how wild and unruly Melbourne really is. It's also much more about how people live in it than about big landmarks."

The result is Melbourne Poetry Map, a first in Australia, which consists of six self-guided walks and downloadable audio files of poems to listen to along the way.

Each walk takes 20 to 25 minutes; you can take to the streets at any time, day or night and, best of all, it's free. The website receives about 500 visitors a month but it feels decidedly "underground". I hear about it through a poet friend and one of the contributors, Nathan Curnow, and test-walk it one sunny Saturday morning, starting at the State Library Lawn, which Curnow wrote about.

I'd listened to a few of the poems before going to Melbourne, yet listening in situ, with my shoes off and the grass tickling my feet, is completely different. I'm suddenly part of Curnow's "Melbourne Central city beach". I look around and see what he's describing.

In the pauses, I hear trams and seagulls bickering over a dropped crumb; a pigeon swoops so low its grey wings almost touch my head. "Most people think of poetry as something obscure, old-fashioned and largely derelict but, really, nothing could be further from the truth," Jackson says. "The poetry map showcases good poetry in a range of styles but in ways that are accessible and current and speak to people, by helping them explore the city in a new way."

Because the printable, hand-drawn maps don't show every street, I pick up a tourist map. It'd be helpful to have a "master" map showing all the walks (which is coming, Jackson says). Instead, I have Curnow accompanying me and, although he suggests that having a poet as a guide is akin to following a rabbit with a pocket watch down a hole, our poetic meanderings, picking and choosing poems from different walks, turn out to be a delightful way to spend a couple of hours.

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Walking along Swanston Street, an autumn leaf, brown and frilled at the edges, floats down in front of us. Earlier, I'd seen a business shirt pinned by the wind to a roadside fence, as if blown off someone's back. In poetry mode, I notice these things, instead of being lost in thought. Look, Melbourne is saying, here I am.

For our last stop, we peel off Swanston Street into an arcade. Upstairs and through a beaded curtain we find Collected Works, a jumbled but peaceful poetry bookstore established in 1984.

The walls are bookshelves of various heights, inhabited by the work of literary luminaries such as Walt Whitman and by poets on the tour. I buy Josephine Rowe's How a Moth Becomes a Boat.

Sitting on a padded vinyl chair, next to a CD player and surrounded by "small books made on stay-awake evenings", I listen to Maurice McNamara's poem about this much-loved shop where "occasionally an actual customer comes in and buys an actual book", while Joan Baez sings House of the Rising Sun like a lullaby.

Next door is Retrostar, the largest vintage clothing store in Australia and the ultimate dress-up box for would-be poets, with racks of flannelette shirts, velvet jackets rubbing elbows, old airline bags. Back on Swanston Street, dressed more creatively now, I try to blend in with the locals getting onto crowded trams.

Melbourne, I see you more clearly now. How do you feel about long-distance relationships?

Melbourne Poetry Map is a free, downloadable self-guided walking tour of landmarks and spoken-word poems written about them. Go to the website, pick a walk, print a map and download the audio file to your MP3 player, smartphone or iPod. melbourne poetrymap.com. The 10th annual Melbourne Overload Poetry Festival is on September 9-17. overloadpoetry.org.

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