When Bruce Dobler and Ed Ochester created their summer poetry reading series in 1975, they found an unlikely host in Jimmy Cvetic — a Vietnam veteran, Allegheny County narcotics detective, and boxing coach. But Cvetic, who passed away in February, turned out to be the perfect ringmaster for the succession of poets and writers, accomplished and otherwise, who read their work at Hemingway’s Cafe in Oakland.
“He was engaged to do this because he was outside of all the established poetry groups in the city,” says Kristopher Collins, who along with Joan Bauer, takes over hosting duties this year.
“They wanted a setting for community poets,” says Bauer. “Jimmy was regarded as a neutral party; he wouldn’t play favorites. He was just an original. You knew unpredictable things could happen. Things could get raucous. It was wonderful, it was great.”
The 2019 season of Hemingway’s Poetry Series, which takes place Tuesdays at Hemingway’s Cafe in Oakland through July, will feature the reading of one of Cvetic's poems at every session. On May 28, the day after Memorial Day, the entire evening will be devoted to Cvetic with readings by veterans.
Cvetic quickly transcended his designated role as host. Always wearing a baseball cap turned backward, he became a confidante, mentor, and booster to many who walked into the cafe clutching pages of poems for the open mic sessions that followed the scheduled readers.
Collins was one of the poets encouraged by Cvetic. He was working at Caliban Books on Craig Street in Oakland when Cvetic came in looking for collections by Charles Bukowski.
“Here’s a guy whose reading habits I shared and respected, who had things that were interesting and valid to say about the work I was doing,” Collins says. “And he was enthusiastic and supportive of it. ... It was a really big deal, and Jimmy and I, just through being at the shop and him coming in, grew closer.”
Bauer’s friendship with Cvetic dates back to 2000 when she first attended the series. She quickly realized that Cvetic was unlike any other poet she'd met.
“What I really respected right away was that he had a great deal of concern about not hurting people's feelings,” Bauer says. “He wanted to give everybody some space, to really have a chance, and the open mic was always his favorite part of this series because he'd get to open it up to people who might not otherwise have been heard.”
While Cvetic was devoted to the series, he was also prone to hatching ideas that weren't exactly fleshed out. Both Bauer and Collins received many phone calls about events Cvetic wanted to hold, “big concept things,” Bauer says, that were short on details.
Once, Cvetic wanted to put on a show featuring himself and the poet John Korn reading while wearing nothing but wooden barrels.
“How is that going to actually work, Jimmy?” Collins recalls asking. “Jimmy'd say, 'It's going to be great, I'll get back to you in a week about this.' And I would never hear more about it. He always had these kinds of ideas.”
Even in his last months, when Cvetic's cancer was growing worse, he was still suggesting ideas to Bauer and Collins.
“He was just plowing through then,” Bauer says. “He was determined to keep going and doing as much as he could every minute.”
Between the Lines
Lincoln A. Mitchell, author of Baseball Goes West: The Dodgers, the Giants and the Shaping of the Major Leagues (Kent State University Press), appears May 4 at City Books. Mitchell's book examines the exodus of the two beloved teams from New York to California in 1957, and how that move shaped the sport as it's known today. 7 p.m. 908 Galveston Ave., North Side. Free. 412-321-7323 or citybookspgh.com