A Conversation With the Old Poet

This past weekend I spoke on the phone for about 45 minutes with a living legend of sorts. And it was uplifting to learn that, even at the age of 80 years, Judson Crews is still mentally sharp as a straight razor. Such things give a little hope to those of us rapidly approaching the "Golden Years."

Crews, who lives in Albuquerque, has been beset with physical ailments in recent years. He hasn't been able to write for the past six or seven years, at least not creatively. He spends most of his days now sitting in a recliner in his apartment reliving the past in his mind's eye, which is still strong and vital as ever.

He worries that his work has been forgotten, although obviously that's a concern misplaced--just punch his name into Yahoo's search engine on the Internet and see the volumes of files that come up from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of New York at Buffalo, both of which have archives on his work and correspondence dating from the thirties to the early eighties.

I first encountered Judson in 1984 when I was publishing a small "underground" poetry magazine out of St. Louis. I learned recently from Harry Calhoun, a mutual friend and fellow writer, that he was indeed still alive and kicking and in fact living in the same spot in Albuquerque where he has lived for several years since leaving the artists' colony of Taos.

Harry said later that he had spoken with Judson and found him to be very lucid; indeed, "cavalier" in his intelligence. A tricky word, that, and one that made me wonder.

But after speaking with Judson myself, I realized that Harry had meant cavalier in the sense of free and easy, still sure of himself, not the more pejorative "haughty" definition the word so frequently brings to mind.

Judson, who was born in Waco, Texas in 1917, took off to California as a young man. He hung out around Big Sur and came to be friends with an older writer who lived in a little cabin there at the time, Henry Miller. Miller later wrote about the young fellow from Waco who showed up with a sleeping bag and camped on his back porch, a fellow fired by his own literary ambitions.

He went on to pick up a couple of degrees from Baylor University and served as a medical corpsman during World War Two. He taught in Texas and New Mexico and once, for four years, at a university in Zambia, Africa, all the while writing his poetry and publishing the poetry of others after he moved to Taos following the war.

Crews knew practically everybody in the literary world during that era. His list of correspondence reads like a who's who: Miller, William Carlos Williams, Anais Nin, Rexroth, Ferlinghetti, Bukowski, Patchen, Ginsberg, Hughes, Shapiro, and countless others. His dealings with such innovative people helped shape his own mind into that of the sturdy soul he remains to this day.

And he doesn't mind disagreing with you either. I mentioned that he could take comfort in the fact that if his physical health had deteriorated, he still at least had an alert mind.

"I don't think there's anything worse than growing senile," I said.

"Oh, yes there is," he piped up, then recounted the final days of poet Kenneth Roxroth. Roxroth had been stricken with some kind of affliction that left him mentally alert, and yet unable to move or even bat an eyelid.

"Oh, it's much better to lose your mind that to be in that situation," said Judson. "That is much worse than death."

I couldn't disagree with that appraisal.

I reminded him that in 1985 he had sent me two excerpts from "The Wordless One" to use in my next issue. My life had somewhat collapsed about that time and as it turned out there was not to be a fifth issue. I asked if he had any objection to me using the pieces in a little mag I was running on the Web.

"Of course you may use them," he said expansively, continuing to note that of all his manuscripts, no part of that particular one had ever been published anywhere. "If you can, would you send me a copy of it?"

I promised that when it was in place, I would copy it and mail it to him; another piece of fodder for the final boxes bound for the archives one of these day, but if there's a writer alive who doesn't collect copies of everything he's ever done I've yet to meet him.

I happened to mention that I was 56 myself now, no longer a kid. He chuckled at that.

"Fifty-six sounds like a kid to me, from this perspective" he said with mirth. "But I have few regrets, there's very little I would do differently given the opportunity."

In today's world everything seems keyed to youth, and yet perhaps we're missing out on a lot because we pay so little attention to those who have gone before us. Ours is not a culture that puts great store in the elderly.

It could be that I'm just realizing that possibility because of where I find myself on the scale of life, rapidly approaching "fossildom" myself. But I think 80 is probably a little beyond my range.

I expect to be a resident of "Marlboro Country" by 2021, if not long before. I certainly won't be passing along any pearls of wisdom to 56-year-old "kids."

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