Writing Fatherhood

By rob mclennan

What do we know about pregnancy


I shall begin, by speaking. Incubate, introduce a glossary. Just on the tongue. Unpaginated.


Something is growing, inside. Occupant. Connects whole milk to healthy industry. Exhausted, reclines.


The necessity of, a new sentence. The body produces. What we call, little sprout. What she calls, the ultimate creative act.


Not much. Objects move, gaze recalculates. Obliged, by the medium. The grouping of two combined texts.

Since we discovered back in March we were expecting, I’ve been picking and pulling various anthologies of writing motherhood off my bookshelves for Christine to peruse (a thorough researcher, I suspect she has spent as much time looking up things on her own, as well), all of which has me thinking again about poets who write on parenthood. I’ve found about a half-dozen or so literary anthologies on mothering from the past 20 years, predominantly Canadian (there are a couple of American titles I wouldn’t mind getting my hands on), and varying in quality, but all interesting. Given that my daughter is nearly 23, I’ve long been interested in how writers manage to write their children, without giving too much away, or otherwise complicating their children’s lives. One wants to discuss and explore the experience, not overstep the boundaries of privacy. There are plenty of pieces by mothers, but where are the perspectives from the writer-father? Are there simply titles I haven’t heard of?

When I think of writing on parenthood, I think of American poets Rachel Zucker, Pattie McCarthy and Arielle Greenberg; I think of Toronto writer Margaret Christakos, and Claire Harris’ Drawing Down a Daughter (Goose Lane Editions, 1992; 2007), each writing their own explorations of motherhood, mothering, partners and everything else that comes with the experience. As much as I enjoy the work of these poets, how many have specifically written fatherhood? During the first year of his daughter’s life, Calgary poet Richard Harrison composed Big Breath of a Wish (Wolsak and Wynn, 1998), a book I found more intriguing for its subject matter than style. Sprinkled throughout a number of his books, Phil Hall has written some lovely poems about his daughter, as has Jay MillAr, on his two boys. George Bowering wrote of Thea, Robert Kroetsch wrote his two daughters, bpNichol wrote of Sarah through selections of The Martyrology, and even Michael Ondaatje wrote small pieces referencing his children in some of his earlier poetry collections. Unlike motherhood, which I’ve seen female poets produce as sections of poetry collections, as well as full collections, fatherhood predominantly seems to appear more as individual poems. Dallas, Texas poet Farid Matuk wrote his daughter into This Is a Nice Neighborhood (Letter Machine Editions, 2010), as well as a new chapbook I haven’t yet seen, My Daughter La Chola (Ahsahta Press, 2013). From his trade collection, at least:

[We talk of having a baby]

 We talk of having a baby

            I hate that kid

 turning your name

            I study now

            into mother

 well after we die

Subtitled “in the months / before our second / daughter’s birth,” California poet Dan Thomas-Glass’ chapbook Kate & Sonia (little red leaves, textile series, 2011) is a meditation on the imminent birth of his second daughter. “Kate, Sonia I wanted to write / a poem for you that a mother would write,” he writes, to open the third section, nearly echoing the sentiment. The poem writes out, as his bio confirms, “his wife Kate and their daughters Sonia and Alma (born 9/21/11).” A sequence of eleven poems plus epilogue, his meditation focuses on the small, and the close-to-home, as a kind of sketchbook of thoughts during his wife’s second pregnancy. As the final pre-epilogue poem ends, “Sonia I am sorry for all this moment’s failures.”

Sonia screams against the order
            days insist on packing
into the stretch: minor
impossibilities like toes

arched up to generate
            space straining to switch
the switch. This possible world

Sonia screams against. I
glance at Kate—where are
            our options? To lift
or light? Shushing by
reflex my art motions
toward quiet.

Given how deeply intimate and immediate parenthood is, the question isn’t about who is writing parenthood, but how can anyone who writes who has children not be writing some aspect of this? How can at least some reference to the experience not enter into the text? In many ways, I wonder how writing fatherhood isn’t more prevalent than it appears, or if the way men write their children is simply different than how women do. Am I asking the wrong questions, seeking out writing by men in the way women do? Conversations about writing parenthood are often paired with writing on the “domestic,” something that often gets dismissed, yet something that Black Mountain poet Robert Creeley managed a whole career of. They might not all have been child-specific, but many were certainly centred around the home, the self and the family. On the other hand, one of my favourite poems by Prince George, British Columbia poet Barry McKinnon has long been this one, from his Governor General’s Award-shortlisted The the (Coach House Press, 1980):


Claire has 4 teeth
& can stand

high enough to turn
the radio off

& throw my baby picture
off the shelf

what questions can I

about these things
I watch my girl

grow. I am grown up
& must bend down

to turn the radio on
& put my picture back.

When Christine and I read in the Toronto living room of Hoa Nguyen and Dale Smith this past spring, I was introduced not only to Nguyen’s Hecate Lochia (hot whiskey press, 2009), but Smith’s Black Stone (Effing, 2007), each writing the experience of their pregnancy and parenthood from the other perspective, providing a fantastic pairing of books that have to be read together.

When my daughter Kate was young, I composed numerous poems on her and her adventures. Most of these attempts were far too early in my writing to have been successful, although the occasional piece does stand out. Around the time Kate was ten, we discovered she was blind in one eye, something that could be kept from getting worse through laser-eye surgery, but not necessarily improved. We went from arguments about why she couldn’t ride her bicycle immediately into weekly sessions of chess which lasted for years. I wrote out the experience of her eyesight as the poem “blindness: seven poems for kate,” first published as a chapbook through the Olive Reading Series in Edmonton, and later, in my collection a compact of words (Salmon Publishing, 2009). When one becomes a parent, the entire perspective of one’s world changes, permanently. Such an important part of my life, how could she not fall into my writing? Even when she isn’t around, she is part of me, there. Out there. Part six of the seven-part poem reads:

she says: what do you know, yr
too old

or was that me

& shes too young, for

rolling her eyes at what,
a mere suggestion

suddenly, the sheer confidence
of youth

& glasses match, her new
blue coat

what she has come thru
so far

The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.

Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa, where he is home full-time with the two wee girls he shares with Christine McNair. The author of more than thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, the Council for the Arts in Ottawa Mid-Career Award in 2014, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. In March, 2016, he was inducted into the VERSe Ottawa Hall of Honour. His most recent titles include The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014) and the poetry collection A perimeter (New Star Books, 2016). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Christine McNair), The Garneau Review (, seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (, Touch the Donkey ( and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater ( In fall 2015, he was named “Interviews Editor” at Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and recently became a regular contributor to both the Drunken Boat and Ploughshares blogs. He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at