When I came across the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup,” on Talk Like a Pirate Day many years ago, a course was set that would reach its destination in a poem of the same name, and finally a chapbook named after a line in said poem. The phrase means, quite simply, to visit a brothel, and it got me thinking—pirates and sex workers in historical and fantasy fiction are often united in the popular imagination. Even the ever-family-oriented Disney have always included a few in their Pirates of the Caribbean films. Historically, it’s accurate—I realize this, not only in stumbling across the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup,” but because famous female pirate Anne Bonny, it is said, was close friends with a bisexual man who also happened to be a brothel owner.
Learning about Anne Bonny’s friend led me round another spiral of thought: the many examples of queerness and empowered women in the world of historical pirates. (I was already pirate-obsessed, but more reasons to adore them are always welcome.) Anne Bonny’s crewmate Mary Read lived parts of her life as Mark Read, with male pronouns, and was equally happy being Mary with female pronouns. As well as being genderfluid, Mary was possibly also bisexual, and I know of at least one history book written entirely about gay male pirates. Buccaneer Jacquotte Delahaye also lived as a man for a time. After Jacquotte came “back from the dead,” a woman again, she refused to marry or have a relationship at all, because she didn’t think any power balance in that situation would be fair to either partner, and she was more concerned with providing for her disabled brother (which is why she was a pirate in the first place). Empowered women, ahoy.
With all of this in mind, my first port of call was thinking of a way to reclaim the phrase “crack Jenny’s teacup.” I mean, it sounds rough, crude, a bit disrespectful—all the things you’d expect from nautical slang regarding this popular shore leave activity, really. But what if the pirate visiting was also a woman? And what if the two women, both outsiders by profession in a very ‘masculine’ world, were actually in love, in a committed relationship, so bringing a further layer of separation between themselves and the men around them, and between the human beings and the jobs? After all, we speak of so many people in history as if they were only their title or profession: kings, queens, knights, cowboys, outlaws, highwaymen – pirates. I wanted to find the people behind the stereotypes this time, even if in this poem they are fictional. And the people I found were two women completely dedicated to each other.
It would’ve been all too easy to make the sex worker an observed character, to have given the speaking power to the woman in the traditionally masculine job, so I made her the narrator instead of her pirate lover. Both women stand up to the “final customer” of the evening: the speaker “shoos” him away, and when he starts to get lippy through familiarity with the speaker, her girlfriend shoots him a look and he leaves. And when, in the wee hours, our narrator is off duty, she and her lover can spend a rare night together while the latter’s ship is docked. Behind closed doors and underneath her sailor’s clothing, our lady pirate loosens “her hair and her smile,” and there is another side to her, which our narrator adores just as much as the dashing rogue: “I love her when she’s soft, or when she’s hard.”
When I started reading this poem at events, I was surprised to discover it chokes me up, and I have to read it through tears–particularly the last stanza: “now she wakes: deadly, delicate” and “but I lose her each time / to breeches, boots, and ship.” I’ve never been a pirate or a sex worker. The characters in this poem are fictional, but I can feel the narrator’s sadness as she remembers the inevitable separation from her girlfriend, because that’s something any person who’s ever loved another can understand. Pirates might be thieves, even murderers, and certainly they were terrors at sea, but that’s just it—they lived their life at sea. If any of them did have a loved one, they would be away from them for long periods of time as much as any Royal Navy sailor. And why would a pirate not have a loved one? They’re still people. Even Blackbeard had a wife.
“Crack Jenny’s Teacup” was first published at Melancholy Hyperbole, and is included in Kate’s tiny chapbook of historical pirate poems Deadly, Delicate.
Kate Garrett’s poetry has been widely published in online and print journals, nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and longlisted for a 2016 Saboteur Award (in pamphlet form). However, while her poetry is busy doing stuff, Kate bums around reading books and hanging out with her husband, children, and cat in Sheffield, England. (Okay, okay, she also edits at Three Drops from a Cauldron / Three Drops Press, and Picaroon Poetry.) Stalk her on Twitter (@mskateybelle), Instagram (also @mskateybelle), and Facebook (facebook.com/kategarrettwrites).