Sunday, February 24, 2013

Boston, You're Killing Me: AWP Options for the Poor

Olga García Echeverría

“It’s interesting, don’t you think, how politicians don’t even mention the working class anymore,” said Elba, a friend and fellow poet. “We don’t even exist. Everything is either about the wealthy or the middle class.”

Her words struck a chord. We were on the phone talking about the upcoming Association of Writers and Writer Programs Conference and we had veered off on a tangent. Well, kind of.

At the end of last year, Elba and I enthusiastically registered for the AWP Conference being held this year in Boston, Massachusetts from March 6th—9th. Neither of us had ever attended, and we thought it important to finally do so. 

We took advantage of the AWP pre-registration and one-year membership bundle, each of us paying $220.00.  It’s a pretty penny for the underemployed, but we felt it well worth the four days of being inundated with writer’s panels, readings, presentations, book fairs and publishing information.

The bigger hurdle was lodging. Boston hotels are pricey, even those associated with the conference, offering “discounts.” Elba sought out an old colleague in the area as a housing option, but that didn’t pan out. In November, I had applied for a writer’s grant and budgeted part of the AWP Conference as a cost for professional development. We kept our fingers crossed. When I didn’t get the grant, we figured it was time to look for the best deals and suck up the costs. If there’s a will, there’s a way, right?

We found and booked a hotel, but in order to get a cheaper price, we had to prepay the entire cost of our four-day stay in Boston. When I got my confirmation receipt online, all taxes and fees included, I gasped.  James Baldwin said it better than I ever could: “Anyone who has struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.”

Plus, there were still plane tickets to purchase. The taxi from the airport to the hotel. The taxi from the hotel to the airport. I could not help but convert the dollars into living expenses, one of my life-long working class habits. Even with all the so-called bargains, my overall trip to Boston would equal my share of the rent for one month, two weeks of groceries and gas, and the cost of my pending visit to the dentist. Boston, you’re killing me! Forget the fancy Boston cream pie I had been fantasizing about. Since our hotel accommodations didn't even include breakfast (that would have cost extra), I imagined packing my own tea bags and pilfering hot water and snacks to survive. In Boston, I thought, I will live off crackers and tea.

Poverty sucks.

Despite our friendship that spans decades, I was embarrassed to call Elba and express my growing anxiety over the cost of Boston. Internalized working-class shame. To make matters worse, my girlfriend had come home from work one day and casually mentioned the Boston weather as something we should look up. The weather? Oh yeah, that might be important, considering we had booked a hotel farther away from the conference for a better deal. Our plan was to walk daily to and from the Haynes Convention Center, where the conference is being held. Save money and exercise at the same time. That’s how the working-class rolls, or in this case, strolls.

Online, weather forecasts of March in Boston predicted in the 30's and, if lucky, in the 40's. One anonymous Boston resident shared that in March one should expect weather that is “chilly, blustery and bleak. Nothing is blooming. Sand and trash are left around from the melting snow.” Another said, “Typically wet and cold.” We would be indoors mostly, of course, but there were the walks to and from the conference to contend. Both Elba and I are Californian Chicanas; we don’t own East Coast winter gear. Neither do our families or friends. Would we have to rummage through our local thrift stores and buy real winter clothes and shoes? Another potential expense. Boston was slowly, but surely, becoming a royal pain in my piggy bank's ass.

Then the phone rang. It was Elba. "We've got to talk about Boston," she said. "Yes!" I answered immediately. There was a strain in both our voices, a communal sense of urgency; yet for a few seconds, silence hung. I knew what she was going to say before she actually said it. Telepathy? Probably more like shared reality.  Finally, she spoke our truth: “Honey, we can’t afford Boston.”

I exhaled. I was so grateful for her words.

We canceled our hotel immediately. Full refund. Perhaps we should have been sad, but we were, more than anything else, relieved. We would not have to eat peanut butter and jelly for the next month. We would not have to starve in Boston. We would not have to walk through the sand and trash “left around from the melting snow” in our lightweight cloth tennis shoes, our feet stiff and numb against the slushy concrete.

Next year the conference will be in Seattle, much closer. We’ll try again. Meanwhile, we have come up with our own AWP Conference options that are more realistic for us and for any other working class writers out there who may not be able to attend this year's conference.

Option 1: Designate March 6th-9th as official Days of the Creative Word. Read, write, visit a new bookstore or library, hold your own intimate, local writing workshops or readings. Elba and I will be doing just that.  It’s an opportunity to honor the AWP Conference dates we had already reserved and use that time to further foster our poetry and prose. We may not be at the conference in the flesh, but we will be there in spirit.

Option 2: Apply for a writer’s grant for a future conference. Yes, the competition is stiff and you may not get it (like me this past year), but it’s a great exercise in writing anyway. AWP actually offers two annual scholarship of $500 each to emerging writers who wish to attend a writer’s conference, center, retreat, festival, or residency. Submissions are accepted between December 1 and March 30 of each year (there’s still time). For more information, visit

Option 3: Go online and check out the authors who will be presenting at the AWP Conference.

Depending on your budget, pick one or a few of the authors and go out and get their books of poetry, memoir, essays or prose. Delve into the pages. Even from afar, you’ll get a whiff and a flavor for this year's highlighted authors at the conference. This is precisely what I did. Considering all the money I won't be spending in Boston, I figure I could treat myself and simultaneously support the literary arts by buying a few books at my local independent bookstore. It isn't the actual conference, I know, and it isn't Boston cream pie in Boston, but as working class Chicana writers who exist (despite invisibility aquí y allá), we’ve got to keep wizarding our own caminos.  

Tune in to my next blog where I’ll discuss the four AWP Conference authors I selected from this year's line-up: Adonis, Joy Castro, Eduardo C. Corral, and Tracy K. Smith. I'm just now exploring their texts, but they are already dazzling me with their words. For now, I leave you with a fitting verse from one of them:

Is this really the world?

Shall I grieve? Shall I hope?

I prefer to sing.



  1. Oh, can I relate! Thank you for your articulate writing. It's so good to read something that reflects one's reality and breaks the feeling of isolation and names that nagging shame of not having enough. You remained upbeat throughout it all and found & even offered great solutions and directions. How empowering! Mil gracias!

    1. Gracias, Eloise! Writing this blog was therapeutic & empowering. I appreciate hearing/knowing that it resonates con otras escritoras y artistas. Adelante!

  2. Courage to express the simplest truths! Thank you. La Bloga has been my own "home schooling" for over a year now because I can't afford these "extras" which really are so vital to all writers regardless of level.
    Your words will help me "sing" today and write. Always write.

    1. Gracias Annonymous. You are not alone in your creative "home schooling." Adelante with your writing!

  3. Gracias Olga! A most important post on class and commitments to writing.

    1. Thank you, Amelia. BTW, I picked Joy Castro from the AWP line up and have been reading her essays. I didn't realize you work with her until I read your blog last week! Small mundo & looking forward to blogging about her work. Saludos y blog abrazos.

  4. Great post. It bugs me how AWP seems to be in the East at least three years out of four, putting writers from the West at a disadvantage expense-wise. Seattle is great. How about, like, Riverside next year? You know the hotels would be cheap, no winter coats necessary!

  5. Thanks, Cheryl. 2016 AWP Conference is going to be in LA. Three years away, but it's something to look forward to. No winter coats & no hotel costs!

  6. I can only echo Amelia's sentiment by thanking you -- del corazón -- for this singularly important post. (And muchas thanks to those who maintain this site, a vastly important forum for conversations such as this one.) The upbeat/positive tone is a great testament to your strength and optimism.

    Currently I am unemployed, so attending AWP this year is out of the question. It's frustrating because I have a book coming out this year and wanted to share that with friends and former colleagues I meet up with at these gatherings. (Let's face it, AWP is as much about commerce as it is about writing.)

    Here's why I'd go so far as suggesting that AWP's pricing us out of the Conference is dangerous: by making it prohibitively expensive, AWP is excluding certain voices and narrowing the conversation. There are so many gifted poets and writers who would make dazzling contributions to the Conference, but the c. $1,000 price tag is too steep. The first time I attended the Conference was in Austin, so I drove (I was living in San Antonio) and stayed at a cheap off-site hotel. I felt like the dorky, invariably broke commuter college student who can't hang out with the resident students and misses out on the cool, post-class conversations. (It's familiar to me b/c that was my undergrad experience.) So even when we're there, we're rendered invisible. My second time at AWP was made possible by a professional-development grant from the institution where I was teaching.

    If the cost of attending keeps rising, the Conference will be a precinct of the elites; it will become increasingly irrelevant to poets and writers who are part of the working poor. Yes, there are those who will have our interests at heart, but if we're not in the room to speak for ourselves, the conversation is impoverished.

    Again, thank you for the rich, supportive fodder. Ojalá nos vemos en Seattle.

  7. Attend AWP Conf. in Boston! Unemployed (like me)?

    Conferences I attend are usually within walking or driving distance. If it's between March and Oct. and somewhere below the 39th parallel (Denver). Then I can sleep in back of my troca. Otherwise, no conference this year.

    You don't need a conf. to write--altho it certainly helps promote your book and yourself--you just need lápiz y papel.

  8. Beautiful Olga! Once again, thank you for eloquently sharing the realities of the working-class writers. You are the best!

    I opt for Yucca Valley over Boston brain freeze. Onward to the California desert cabin! The writing retreat where winter is spring, silence is gold and the wind songs transform into magical writings. All for under $150.


    Yucca Valley, here we come! Definitely beats Boston brain freeze! ;)

  9. Thank you for writing this. I am going to AWP this year thanks to some grants, friends, and a decent airfare, but I haven't been other years because of exactly this. It's so good to hear someone addressing class--more than that, even, just finances--which can so often be taboo even among creatives. I love your idea of doing your own mini-conference at home. Good luck!

  10. I completely agree! Last year I got a $500 grant to attend AWP in, where was it? Chicago. And then I worked the book fair, and I mean every day. AND I also paid for full registration but only had time to sneak out for two panels (luckily one had Eduardo Corral and Patricia Smith). So this year, I booked on Jetblue and got a discount hotel far away from the conference center and decided to do my own "fringe fest" There are PLENTY of offsite readings and events and parties. Plus the book fair is free and open to the public on Saturday.

  11. Thank you for this post. I've always thought that ths AWP conference is not really for people that are solely writers but for individuals who have an academic institution that can afford to cover the hotel, airfare, registration and food. Now that does not include all writers who teach, but just those whose institution has those resources, and that is not all. The fact is that AWP is exclusive and excludes many writers because of the costs associated with attending the conference. I couldn't agree with you more about reading the schedule and the featured readers and getting in touch with the activity from afar. In fact, I wish AWP would invest money, perhaps partner with POETRY, to livestream some of the panels and/or readings. God knows many of us would watch them!

  12. Good article and I totally hear you, as a 'starving artist' myself...I live right down the street and I can't afford to go to anything AWP that is not free. However, I'd correct whoever said that Boston is full of "trash" from the melting snow. Just like any other city, the streets aren't spotless, but the snow is pretty much gone right now, and there is definitely not an excess of trash anywhere. Also, Boston is super walk-able; it is easy to get around.

  13. Thanks for this post. As someone who was a poor, single mom for years, I have found ways to do AWP. My husband works for an airline, on the runway, so I fly standby (free), but I tend to take 10-14 hours or more to arrive at AWP. Also, I only book hotels that don't charge until I arrive- which tend to be guest houses. I map-google convention centers and try to find guest houses, inns, or budget hotels within .2 miles, which is always possible. I also always stay somewhere that serves free breakfast. And I never take taxis from airports- buses and trains will always take you to the hotel for about $2. Last, and I don't feel guilty about this one bit- I *never* register for the conference, and no one ever checks for tags, unless I go to the bookfair. So, I wait until Saturday to visit the bookfair, because it's open to the public then, and, the best part: they are practically throwing books and journals at you then because they don't want to lug them home. Hope this helps!

  14. A great working class poet many working class people don't know about is Joseph Kalar:

  15. Thank you for all the comments. I love hearing your feedback and thoughts. Those are some really good pointers for discounts and making ends meet at these types of conferences. I like the idea to webcam some of the panel so writers who don't attend can view them and I especially like not registering for the conference! Next year! :)


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