Featured Nonfiction/Hybrid Writer: Zack Haber
Updated: Dec 21, 2019
We're pleased to share our featured nonfiction/hybrid writer for this issue: Zack Haber. Join us as we talk about one of our favorite things, how much capitalism sucks. And make sure to check out Haber's piece here!
Ashely Adams: First off, all of the editors here at Lammergeier really admire the way you describe these locations. What made you decide to write these vignettes? What was your inspiration for this project?
Zack Haber: Honestly, what initially inspired the project in 2016 is boring; I was having a hard time writing and I thought putting myself in horrible places would be an easy way to generate material. It was. What kept the project going, and what lead me to finish writing the book in the summer of 2019, is more interesting. After I had written a few of these pieces I started to think about why I was pressing on and I realized it was largely because the world we live in is super fucked up and at least part of why is we often won’t admit it’s super fucked up. And at least part of the reason we won’t admit it’s super fucked up is that we often don’t (and sometimes can’t) use the energy and effort to notice and feel how fucked up it is.
One problem I see with the way a lot of people approach mindfulness is that it’s mostly about relaxing. I’m not saying everyone approaches it that way but it seems like the majority do. I think mindfulness practices are important and I regularly meditate but so much of new age culture really turns me off. There’s no good reason I see why practices of mindfulness and awareness shouldn’t lead to highly politicized and even revolutionary action but it seems like people rarely consider that. I’m not against relaxing but I think mindfulness practices should also help you to realize painful and even stressful things occurring that you wouldn’t otherwise have noticed. That noticing is hard, but it allows us to accurately gauge what we’re dealing with and helps us in our efforts to change it.
I’m a communist anarchist who sees most of the places that we interact with under capitalism as alienating. Most others, I suspect, feel that alienation as well but many don’t know how to contextualize it. So many people are sad or mad but don’t even realize they’re sad or mad or how or why that is. I want the Horrible Places book to encourage people to pay attention and be aware, to tap into the pain a bit. So what’s inspired me to keep writing Horrible Places and what’s inspiring me now that it’s done, to seek a publisher, is that I think it’s important to be aware of the different ways places are fucked up so we can change them.
AA: When I think of the history of writing that explores place, it seems like so much of it is rooted in warmth and nostalgia—pastoral poetry, transcendentalism, etc. However, your writing clearly engages with place as an extension of oppression (the border, anti-homeless architecture). Could you talk a little bit more about how and why a place can be “horrible”?
ZH: This is a good question. I think I’d like to also ask another question within its spirit: Can any places that aren’t anti-capitalist not be horrible under capitalism?
I think my favorite poem in this book I wrote is about Whole Foods. You can read it here if you’re interested. Every single person who works in Whole Foods is currently having their labor used to benefit the richest man on earth. How can a place like that not be horrible? That’s an extreme example but does anything, save the degree, separate that kind of exploitation from other hierarchically based institutions or businesses? Even in a small local business the workers sell their labour power to the owner(s) who collect the profits while doing much less work (if they even do any work at all) than the workers.
The border is another example. Some can cross it, some can’t. And the decision as to who can and can’t cross is based on believing in hierarchies: that some are entitled to access certain land and some are not. Hierarchies are endemic to capitalism and I think they are alienating to all.
I don’t think, my favorite grocery store, Mandela Food Cooperative in West Oakland, is horrible. They’re a cooperative where the workers also own the store and they try their best to buy products from other cooperatives and independent farmers. It’s not perfect, out of necessity I’m sure they buy products from capitalist companies that exploit workers. But at their core I think they are doing what they can to run a communal business as opposed to capitalist one. It feels different being there than in Whole Foods and the biggest difference is that the workers seem happier.
AA: I was reading through some of your other (excellent) writing and noticed you do a lot of reporting. Can you talk about how your journalistic experience affects your more experimental writing and vice versa?
ZH: I started writing journalism in 2018 after about a decade and a half of doing poetry and experimental writing. The reason I started writing that way is that I wanted to do work that had a more tangible effect on the world. I’m not saying poetry can’t change things but its effects are less measurable and noticeable to me.
The way I’ve written poetry in the last few years I think helped me be a better reporter. I’ve been doing projects where I take lots of notes and then edit them down into poems, basically going small to big, keeping only the most important stuff. Reporting is similar process. I’ll do a few interviews and read a few reports or articles and edit it all down to highlight the most important.
Recently I started writing poetry again in a more direct way, just sitting down and writing the poem. You can’t really do that with reporting. It’s been hard but fun!
The reporting has definitely affected my poetry but it’s hard to place exactly how. I’ve been doing it for so much less time.
AA: Some people will argue that writing doesn’t have to be political. I argue that all art is political, even if it’s just refusing to acknowledge something. As someone who’s clearly writing against oppression, how do you think fellow writers might be able to perform meaningful resistance against bigotry and apathy?
ZH: I agree that all writing is political. I’m not as interested in resisting bigotry and apathy as I am in rebelling against them. One thing that’s been most helpful for me is finding the people who I think are rebelling with the most zeal and building relationships with them. Finding those who are most affected by bigotry and apathy and building relationships with them has also been important. The writing comes largely from those relationships. You can do this face to face but you can also do this through reading. You can still build a relationship with Karl Marx and Emily Dickinson even though they’re dead.
AA: And on a lighter note, what’s your favorite bone?
ZH: When I was maybe 8 years old, I broke my right arm. I was playing basketball and I fell down while dribbling and it broke. I don’t even think anyone touched me, I just fell down. After that I told everyone that I slipped on a banana peel. I told the story so much that I think there were times I forgot it was not true. People either believed that story or pretended to. I’m going to say my right arm bone is my favorite bone but I might just be saying that right now as an excuse to tell this ridiculous story. I think the bone I broke is called the ulna.