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Northern Pikes lead man Jay Semko turns to poetry in new book

Best known as lead man of the Northern Pikes, Jay Semko has often performed as a musician in Yorkton.
jay semko 72 july 2
Jay Semko has a new book out.

YORKTON - For those growing up through the 1980s The Northern Pikes were one of the top bands in Saskatchewan, having naturally played in the local area over the years. 

A lot of the Pikes material was thanks to lead man Jay Semko, who went on to release a number of solo albums post the Pikes, again playing locally for events. 

It also happens Semko is a writer of poetry, perhaps not surprisingly given how closely related song lyrics and poetry are. 

And now Semko, who was born and raised in Saskatoon, has collected some of his music lyrics and his poetry, and combined the two into a recently released book. 

The poetry side Semko’s writing may be connected to school days. 

“I excelled in English in school and began writing poetry as a child. I began writing songs in my late teens, and attended University of Saskatchewan for a year and a half with English literature as my major - as much as I loved English and political science, I had difficulty with motivation regarding other subjects and thus my university career was short-lived,” he told Yorkton This Week. “I guess I learned to be a writer "on the job" so to speak, writing lyrics for songs and adapting some of my poetry into song lyrics.  

“I'm always writing - it's been everything to me, absolutely essential for my mental and physical health and something I love doing.” 

If university wasn’t Semko’s ‘thing’ the English no doubt helped when it came to writing lyrics which is where he would find his lifelong career. 

“Music has been my career for most of my adult life, although I have worked at numerous other jobs over the years -- Canadian Tire, warehouse work, retail clerk, golf course maintenance worker, driver, invigilator, and others -- but since my early twenties music has been my career,” he said.  

“I played in numerous bands as a teenager and beyond, and when I was 23, I formed The Northern Pikes with Bryan Potvin and Merl Bryck. After performing live for three years across Canada and releasing two independent albums we signed a worldwide record contract with Virgin Records in 1986, with Don Schmid as our fourth member.” 

Of course a band needs material. 

“I began writing songs in my late teens, and played in a few bands performing original material prior to The Northern Pikes - I learned through trial and error how to write songs, and after a great deal of practice, effort, time, and patience, became proficient at it - I always had a love of words, and have been writing poetry for most of my life,” said Semko.  

“I also became a music composer for film and television - I wrote the theme song and was a co-composer with Jack Lenz and John McCarthy on the syndicated TV series ‘Due South’, and have composed music for many other productions. I am also a co-writer with other artists and songwriters, have instructed song writing at the University of Saskatchewan, and I am a voiceover artist voicing ads and narrating.” 

So why bring his lyrics and poetry together in a book now? 

“It had been suggested to me by a few people over the years who wanted to read all the lyrics,” said Semko. “I have written, and continue to write, numerous scraps and shards of free form verse - some of it can become a lyric and and/or a stand-alone poem, and sometimes I'll go deep with it wherein I work continuously on it as a long free-form verse - it happens many ways, with inspiration coming from many different places within and without.” 

Semko said as he looked over what he had written through the years he began to see potential for a book. 

“I started going through my bits and pieces of scribbles and thoughts and I realized there was much more there than I originally thought, both in terms of volume and of depth,” he said. “I began to think that I could actually have a book's worth of poetry, so I committed to completing it with a deadline in mind - it forced me to closely examine everything about every poem I was considering for the book, and also to approach the lyrics with a sense of how they would 'read' as opposed to being 'sung'. It was challenging in a good way - I became more aware of every word - a lot of internal wrestling when really facing the rawness of sharing this piece of my life.” 

The effort was somewhat introspective of what Semko had created through the years. 

“I went through everything that I thought would be good to have in the collection, and began finding some interesting yet unfinished poems - I dug in and completed them, and once I began that process it had a domino effect in terms of amplifying what I needed to aspire to with every poem,” he said. “That being said, some poems were complete as they were, and others needed more finessing/editing.  

“As I went through all of the material I began to notice how many of the poems were about my struggles with addiction and mental health challenges, and after initially being a bit surprised, I decided to completely embrace what I had written.” 

Open about struggles

Semko said it is important to talk about struggles when people are ready.  

“I have been quite open in the past in regards to discussing my personal challenges - I discovered, or rather re-discovered, that openly discussing this part of my life was and is cathartic to me as well as others who may be experiencing this in their own lives or in the lives of loved ones,” he said.  

“This was really brought home to me on the Pikes 2017 Big Blue Sky 30th Anniversary tour across Canada, where CAMH (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) had an information booth at all of the venues we performed at.  

“During each show I would talk onstage for a couple of minutes about my addiction and mental health challenges, informing the audience of the CAMH booth. CAMH had their booth next to the Pikes merchandise booth in the theatre lobbies, and after each show we would go to our booth in the lobby to sign merchandise and memorabilia. Invariably, numerous people would come up to me and thank me for sharing about my personal struggles, and it was often a very emotional experience - I made the decision to become more vocal about my experiences, as I witnessed the positive effect it could potentially have for others.” 

The struggles Semko faced come out in many of the works in the book.  

“There are a number of poems in the book dealing with my internal battles, as well as others that are about many other subjects - poetry can be very subjective, and I love words so much - every single of them matters,” he said. 

Creating the book still meant challenges too.  

“Probably the most challenging aspect of the book was the editing process - Jeanne Martinson of Wood Dragon Books (the publisher) was very helpful with this,” said Semko.  

“We went through numerous drafts - it's a somewhat painstaking process in regards to poetry, but well worth the patience and focus required, in my opinion. I found many parallels with writing, recording, mixing, mastering, and producing an album of music - it just takes time and hard work.” 

There was also having to face exactly what he was doing releasing to poetry to the world. 

“I guess there was also the reality check when I realized we were getting close to the finished version that I was really baring my soul in some of the poems, and I had to double-check with myself that I was cool with that, and ultimately I was,” said Semko.  

“It was a challenge to separate myself from the song lyrics as music, to them becoming their own entity - I heard music when I read them, and when I was able to fully embrace them without music through altering, rewriting, and editing, I was able to help them evolve into more interesting poetry.” 

So what does Semko see as the best aspect of the book?  

“For me, the best aspect of the book is the somewhat meandering journey that connects the poems, concluding with redemption - although a varied collection, I believe there is a cohesiveness in the chaos that is subliminal but apparent,” he related. “I also believe there is catharsis and release in sharing very personally, for me and for others.” 

Does the writer have a favourite piece or two?  

“Well, a couple that I find myself returning to are ‘No Rabies Necessary’ and ‘My Mother in the Hospital’,” said Semko. “There are a number of poems in the book about addiction, mental health challenges, and aging – ‘No Rabies Necessary’ narrates the inner skirmishes that can become monsters, at least with me.  

“My Mother in the Hospital; is about my mother's illness and passing over the course of 2017, as the Northern Pikes were planning, rehearsing, and performing our Big Blue Sky 30 Tour. It was such a challenging and heartbreaking time, and my mother was so incredibly strong and courageous. She passed on the eve of our last show of the tour, in Saskatoon. I think anyone who has had to deal with a loved one's terminal illness can relate to this poem.” 

Ultimately, Senko is pleased with what all the effort allowed him to create. 

“Yes I'm quite satisfied - it is a collection I am proud of,” he said. “Having said that, one never stops learning and I learned many things working on the book that I will apply to my next book of poetry, which I am currently working on.” 

The writer does believe there is an audience for the work too. 

“The target audience is anyone who enjoys poetry,” he said. “People who enjoy my music as a solo artist and with The Pikes are very interested, and people who are aware of my journey through mental health and addiction challenges are also, but I would hope that anyone looking for interesting poetry will enjoy it.” 

The book is available at bookstores that can order copies. For a full list check out