June 2008 – The Venice Beat Poets – –The Great River Outside the Mainstream – John Haag

By Jim Smith

In many ways, John Haag was a typical member of the Beat Generation in that he forsook a career in Academia or Madison Avenue, for a life dedicated to poverty, poetry and his community. But he was different in one important respect – he was political. 

The Rochester, New York native studied Italian Literature at Harvard University. After graduation, he traveled to Rome where he met, and married, Anna Ricci. John soon became intrigued with rumors of something new coming out of Venice, California. He and his new wife moved here in 1959 and they soon became fixtures at the Venice West Cafe, which had been opened by poet Stuart Perkoff. When Perkoff got tired of running the dusk to dawn coffee house, he passed it on to John Kerivan, who in 1962, sold it to the Haags for a couple of hundred dollars.

Between John’s good humor and Anna’s Italian dinners, the place filled with poets, artists, and other rebels. 

Unfortunately, it attracted the attention of the right-wing Santa Monica Evening Outlook which railed against the “bums and hobos.” The city of Los Angeles and the LAPD also took a dim view of the poets and their poetry. The Venice West was closed by police in September, 1964, for allowing “performances” (people reading their poetry) without a cabaret license. 

At about the same time, Karl Rundberg, the L.A. City Councilmember for Venice, introduced an anti-bongo motion to prohibit drumming on the Ocean Front. It passed 11-2, with the notable opposition of Councilmember and future Mayor, Tom Bradley.

Haag recognized the assault on the Venice West, where poetry had been read for years, as part of a gentrification effort. A move was afoot to create an urban renewal zone which would wipe out Venice, just as much of neighboring Ocean Park had been bulldozed.

The fight to save poetry at the Venice West awoke John’s talent for organizing. He led a campaign for free speech that ultimately won the support of the courts. 

Next came an eviction notice from the landlord, Eugene del Genio. Haag again mobilized supporters and got the eviction withdrawn. By 1966, John and Anna decided the time had come to close the doors. 

Meanwhile, Haag in 1962, had published a newsletter, the Spectre, that combined arts and community involvement. He also formed a Venice chapter of the ACLU, participated in the Venice Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and long before it was popular, he was the co-chairman of the Los Angeles Committee to End the War in Vietnam.

John Haag went on to found a political party, the California Peace and Freedom Party, and a newspaper, the Free Venice Beachhead. He set the tone for a Venice variety of political radicals – soft spoken, poetry spouting, anarchistic and lovers of community.

He remained active in his beloved Venice through the 1980s, until ill health made him retire. For more than 25 years, there was scarcely an issue of concern to Venetians in which John Haag was not involved. He was a ceaseless organizer for progressive causes, running for lieutenant governor and state controller. He was instrumental in the 1972 third-party campaign for President by Dr. Benjamin Spock.

At all times, Haag considered himself a poet, and continued to write in the thick of struggle. He died on March 29, 2006.

Read more about John Haag in the Beachhead’s memorial issue, May 2006, at www.freevenice.org. See a 2002 talk by Haag at Google Video (search on “John Haag”). This concludes our series on Venice Beat poets.