By Will Yannacoulias
Saskatoon’s Jay Semko has enjoyed a long, illustrious career in the arts. Getting his start as a founding member of The Northern Pikes in 1984, Semko has also released a number of solo albums, co-written alongside many talented songwriters, and distinguished himself as a composer with a sizable body of film score work. Semko’s creative odyssey led him in a new direction last October as the celebrated songsmith released his first book, The Poetry & Lyrics of Jay Semko. Fresh off a night of poetry, music and storytelling at The Bassment last November, Semko spoke with NSMZ about his writing debut and the experiences that inspired him.
Recognized as an honest and introspective lyricist and storyteller, poetry would seem like a logical creative step for Semko. When asked about the origins of the project, Semko shared that "the seeds of the book were planted with me from birth, from early childhood, and it covers a wide swath of my life. A couple years ago somebody suggested a poetry book to me. I started going through my old poems, things sometimes written on a parking ticket or a receipt. The big job was sorting through all this stuff, but it was good, like cleaning house. Just after New Years 2021 I started really digging in, editing to figure out how it would read the best, while still retaining the raw emotion that inspired it.”
Semko, like many artists, loves the creative process and can be guilty of forever adjusting and revising his work. Some pieces in the book went through several rewrites, and the order, font, size and layout were all carefully considered and reconsidered. “A lot of the poems are very abstract, free form, stream of consciousness” he explained. “I went on to do 12-15 full edits myself, and the editor came back with suggestions as well. I had a lot of artistic control and I was really happy with that. It’s similar to working on an album. When you’re recording you’re focused on making it the best you can. Many times you just want to keep fussing and tinkering and eventually you have to acknowledge ‘we could do this for the next ten years trying to make things perfect. It’s done’. Sometimes someone else, a bandmate or a producer, does that for you. With poetry that’s what a publisher does. I can remember having lunch with the publisher, I’d gone through the book and made extensive notes about edits and formatting changes. She smiled when I showed her and said softly ‘you’re done Jay. It’s perfect.’”
Mental health, addictions and recovery are recurring subjects and themes throughout the poems. Semko, who has been very candid about his own struggles, has always publicly championed mental health support and awareness. “Not until after I’d gone through and picked the poems for this project did I realize that quite a few dealt with my struggles; my bipolar disorder and my recovery from addictions. If you talk about this stuff it removes the stigma, makes it open and it becomes something we can all deal with instead of being hidden or stashed away. It’s important to feel like it’s ok to talk about your mental health, your addictions and recovery. I used to look at these things as a curse, then as a challenge, and now I look at them as something I’m grateful I went through and could come out on the other side. I’m thankful for those experiences and for the opportunity to write about them.”
When asked to reflect upon the writing experience Semko is humble, his many years in the music
industry unmentioned as he shares the wonder of exploring this brand new medium. “I’ve never done this before, it’s new for me. I’m an old dog learning new tricks. I really enjoy anything involving the artistic process. Sometimes it can be frustrating but it’s really fun as well. It feels good to be trying something new. I hope I never stop learning, you’ve got to keep growing.”
The Poetry & Lyrics of Jay Semko is available at McNally Robinson Books and via his website at www.jaysemko.com. Semko is in the process of recording Poetry & Lyrics as an audio book. In the meantime Semko can be heard on his program The Songwriters on CFCR 90.5 fm every Tuesday at 1:00 pm.