Unite, celebrate and elevate. This is the mission of the Memphis Soul Prize, a poetry competition focusing on the unique perspectives of Memphis by its students. Donny Granger, founder of Memphis Soul Prize and Creation Studios, set this competition to teach students about their history and to express their gratitude through poetry.
“At its core, the Memphis Soul Prize is a city-wide poetry competition that allows high school students to create works of art that the whole city can rally around,”Granger said. “The students learn. The students write. The city votes on the best. Then we take the five finalists and create short films to bring the poetry to life.”
Bringing this Memphis Soul Prize to life, AP Seminar and Research teacher Joanna Lawrence was one of the first teachers to join this project and to plan its application in Memphis City Schools. She became the lifeline to the Memphis Soul Prize at White Station.
“Each year, I enjoy reading students’ personal perspectives about the city. Where we live, where we call home, always has a unique place in our lives, and poetry is a wonderful way to express that perspective about Memphis,” Lawrence said.
Though the writing process can be mind-numbing, with practice, the right words will pop out for the taking. Autumn Bobo (12) knows all about the ins and outs of creating poetry: she won the Memphis Soul Prize with her poem “A Hill is Not my Home”. She knows honing in on what your definition of Memphis truly is, along with creating this detailed image is difficult.
“I [didn’t have] any of the poem, but when she first said it… I went on my notes app and just typed out: raze and raise… and that’s pretty much the basis of the entire poem,” Bobo said. “And from there, it was just looking at the piece of paper until my brain processes and then just writing.” This consuming creative process that Bobo took was interrupted by the coronavirus. However, as the Memphian she is , she continued to work on her project so that they can be a beacon of hope to this city during this dark time.
“We are so incredibly delighted that we could bring back a little light into everyone’s world this summer,” Granger said. “The poets worked so hard. We are all so blessed by their insight and their creativity… COVID-19 didn’t keep us from creating or from celebrating.”
After all the hard work she went through creating, writing and recording, Bobo and her fellow poets sat and waited for the results during the televised competition. The city watched, listened and pondered each poem, but ultimately knew no other poet should win the Memphis Soul Prize besides Autumn Bobo. Winning was surreal but more importantly cathartic for her.
“It’s euphoric, honestly because nobody that I know has ever really known about my poetry, and to have it be broadcasted to so publicly, knowing that I put something into the world that other people enjoy, it’s just a different kind of feeling,” Bobo said.