JM: I was taken by “Ode to Agent Orange” because it seems to provide the reader with the “disability origin story”—something so many nondisabled people crave. Was the intention to provide an answer to the question of “Why”?
JW: Why do so many nondisabled people adore the question of “What happened?” Why is that such a fundamental question?
JM: I think this has to do with fear. If you provide the origin of the disability—Oh, I lost my leg in war or, a bus hit me—it gets framed as your experience, it isn’t going to happen to me. I’m safe.
JW: So it’s a distancing mechanism then. To put the disabled person over here, the nondisabled person over there—something happened to you, but nothing happened to me. I’m still trying to figure out where I am on that question. My desire is to refuse to answer it. There are easy answers, but even at the level of easy answer, language is so pernicious. For the longest time the easy answer was birth defect, until I started thinking about the word defectand how I was reinscribing such a negative connotation in my two word biography. So now I say, “I was born with disabilities,” to just take away the bite of the word defect. I guess I don’t have an origin story, in so far as I was born. That’s what happened. Which is different than the accident or the war that leads to disability. I’m curious about disabled people who have an event and a day and time, a cognizance of a before and an after. I’m curious of their experience with disability, which differs drastically from mine.
In that poem, the speaker is speculating on what happened to cause this birth into the world with disabilities. My own father was in Vietnam, but I don’t have any archive that shows what I have is related to Agent Orange. I’ve seen “Agent Orange” come back as a nominal descriptor for our president. I do wonder about how flip we are about using names like Agent Orange for a president when so very many people were affected by it in their bodies. It’s not a metaphor, it’s not a simile—it is an actual chemical that caused havoc.