Chapter and verse

Tim Richards goes underground to discover the city's emerging poetry, fashion and art scene.

It's a warm, sunny day in Melbourne, so I'm not sure what I'm doing here in Campbell Arcade. A relic of the 1950s, it's a dimly lit pedestrian underpass covered with flesh-coloured tiles, linking cafe-strewn Degraves Street to Flinders Street Station. Here and there, old metallic signs point out long-vanished telephone booths or long-blocked exits, so there's a sense of benign neglect.

But one person's neglect is another's opportunity and the city's edgier artists and fashionistas have embraced this subterranean lair. At the Degraves Street end, there's a public art gallery within a series of glass-fronted display cases along the walls.

It's here that I take a seat on a bench to listen to the first poem in the Underground poetry walk, one of six such walks available for free from the Melbourne Poetry Map website. Each consists of a set of MP3 tracks, which can be downloaded to any audio player, accompanied by a PDF map.

These poetry tours are but the tip of the specialised cultural tour iceberg. As well as the many guided walking tours that criss-cross Melbourne and examine topics such as shopping or history, there are a number of distinctive culture-based tours.

Often supplied as DIY downloads, they allow greater exploration of a specific subject that may struggle to fill a weekly tour slot and allow users to mix and match the content, taking the tour's stops at their own pace or in a different order.

The first track on my poetry walk is titled At Night in the Degraves Street Subway, by Emilie Zoey Baker. The poem is centred on the shops at the station end of the arcade - an eccentric collection of fashion outlets, a vinyl record store and Sticky Institute, a shopfront for handmade zines.

The poem, set after the arcade closes at night, has a bunch of ornaments breaking out of fashion boutique Corky St Clair and running the length of the underpass, before breaking into Sticky Institute and producing an irreverent zine, which they hang in the window for the following day's customers.

It's an amusing poetic romp, a light-hearted urban fairytale that provokes chuckles at the antics of the newly animated objects and their very Melbourne artiness.

The map then leads me along Flinders Street, under the station and on to the pedestrian bridge that crosses the Yarra River to the entertainment precinct of Southbank. The bridge is thronging with people enjoying the sunshine and beneath their feet is a boat-shaped concrete "island". This is where the second poem is set.

Over the years, this overlooked stretch of concrete has been sometimes derelict, sometimes the home for short-lived cafes. Now I'm surprised to find a funky new Melbourne bar here, Ponyfish Island. It's humming with loud music and dozens of patrons sipping beer while perched on stools that look like wooden crates.

It's the perfect setting for track two, Randall Stephens's What Are You Looking At? The poet flits between the present and the 1990s, when the bridge was built, contrasting what was then a hangout for beer-drinking youths with the gentrified space of today.

The third track is Hazy Night by Lish Skec. I listen to it in front of Crown Casino, gazing north across the river to Melbourne Aquarium and the viaduct that carries trains between Southern Cross and Flinders Street stations. This poem is a kind of chant, perhaps suggesting the rhythmic motion of trains, and speaks of the "sci-fi vision" across the water. It would work best at night, when the city's industrial curves outlined in neon could look futuristic.

Recrossing the river, I stand in the shadow of the viaduct, looking across Flinders Street to the elegant white form of the Immigration Museum.

All three poems so far have been completely different in their structures and the fourth continues the trend. The song-like Immigration Museum, by Maxine Clarke, has musical notes punctuating the spoken word and is a sharp riposte to the "official" account of Australia's immigration history. The poet refers to hidden stories of Aboriginal dispossession and of asylum seekers fleeing repression, only to become political playthings locked up in detention centres.

It's been a great walk, adding extra impact to the emotional power of poetry by placing the listener in the exact spot the poet is writing and speaking about.

As well, the variety of content neatly demonstrates the complexity of life in a big, vibrant city such as Melbourne.

The Melbourne Poetry Map walks can be downloaded free from melbournepoetrymap.com.

Steps to the cultural side

Audio Design Museum

This online art museum provides a selection of free downloadable audio tours featuring design highlights. The walks cover Flinders Lane, formerly the haunt of tailors and now a design hub, and Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, home of fashion designers and cool galleries. Each is narrated by a series of designers and gallery directors. The tours look particularly good on smartphones. See audiodesignmuseum.com.

Craft on Foot

Another free downloadable audio tour of Flinders Lane but with a focus on craft. A number of curators and creators speak about craft and its history in this part of the city as the walk passes galleries, studios and retailers. The tour finishes at Craft Victoria. See craftvic.org.au /resources/craft-on-foot.

Melbourne for Visitors and Casual Cyclists

More low-tech is this guide produced by Humble Vintage, a company which hires out vintage bicycles. Bearing a charming retro font, the fold-out sheet contains a detailed map of suggested cycling routes. Alongside is text describing highlights. A copy of the guide is included with bicycle hire, or you can buy it for $3 from Melbourne bookshops. See thehumblevintage.com.

Diggin' Melbourne

Despite the assault from CDs and digital music files, the vinyl record still has its devotees and Melbourne has a disproportionate number of vinyl record stores. To guide record lovers to them, the Diggin' Melbourne map is available for free download as a PDF file. More than three dozen specialist music emporia are listed. See digginmelbourne.wordpress.com.

Photography Night Walk

This regular group tour turns the solitary photographer into a social animal. It's run by photographer Jessica Edgar, who leads her camera-bearing followers along a different route through the city centre each Thursday and Sunday evening. The walk departs 6.30pm Thursday and 5.30pm Sunday, cost $15. Phone 0407 555 168, email photographynightwalks@gmail.com.

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