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Understanding RhondaK

She's a funky ''editrix,'' a literary diva whose best friend is a pug and who drives a paint-spattered 1986 Ram.

By RON MATUS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 1, 2002


[Times photos: Stefanie Boyar]
Rhonda Kitchens, with Oskar, her 6-year-old pug, describes herself as a "writer, voyeur, editrix and librarian." She writes for the Weekly Planet, edits the online magazine, nakedpoetry.com, and created the spoken-word jam sessions called Poetry in the Dark.
DAVIS ISLANDS -- Her father paves roads. Her mother is a retired teacher's aide.

Rhonda Kitchens reviews sex toys on the Internet.

She hails from Plant City, land of strawberries, but her personality is more passion fruit and pineapple.

Her pickup truck is slathered with spray paint. Her dog is a pug.

She once placed a classified ad seeking "well-endowed male for affair," then wrote an article about the responses.

Even her part-time job raises eyebrows: She probes Pepsi products at fast-food joints, testing effervescence, while baffled customers ask if she's looking for anthrax.

Kitchens insists she's no different from anyone else.

"If you sit in a bar, a dive bar, whatever, some freaky place where there's like thousands of characters, you're just like, 'I'm right in the middle of this,' " Kitchens says.

"I consider myself, honestly, the most average person in the world."

Kitchens, 38, once managed a string of chain shoe stores. Now she's a devoted, full-time librarian.

At John F. Germany Library downtown, she'll help you find out whether a bananaquit is in the sparrow family, or what paperwork you need to start a new business.

But she's not a librarian like, say, Laura Bush is a librarian.

Kitchens is a shock-inducing literary diva.

Her well-read roots are in Tampa's cultural underground but branch effortlessly into mainstream soil.

"She has that funkiness," said Kathy Fountain, anchor of FOX13's Your Turn show, for which Kitchens is an occasional guest.

Kitchens made a name for herself organizing Poetry in the Dark, spoken-word jam sessions that drew inspired crowds to the now-defunct Albi's on Hyde Park Boulevard.

Now, the Davis Islands resident is a regular contributor to Weekly Planet and "editrix" of an on-line literary magazine, nakedpoetry.com.

Writing is "my heart," Kitchens says.

She didn't find it, though, until she was 1,000 miles from home, on stage in front of hundreds of strangers.

* * *

Even people who don't know Kitchens know Kitchens.

She refuses to be overlooked.

Her dog and "brother," Oskar the Luv Pug, was voted Most Attractively Challenged at last spring's Islands Fest on Davis Islands. He and Kitchens frequent Tate Brothers Pizza, where Oskar is treated to chicken tenders but craves parmy puffs.

Kitchens calls him a "bowling ball on a leash." He has his own Web site, theluvpug.com.

Kitchen's 1986 Ram 50 is a pug on wheels.

From 100 yards, it looks decked out in deerhunter camo. Up close, the design is more mysterious.

An angry Kitchens sprayed it black, then splotched it with silver, punching crumpled-up newspaper against wet paint. Her pen name, RhondaK, is stenciled in big letters on the hood and tailgate.

Rhonda Kitchens hand-painted her 1986 Ram 50 truck black with silver splotches and then adorned it with tiny mirrors and her pen name, RhondaK.
The Ram is a rolling shrine.

Kitchens grew up Baptist but now calls herself "pretty faithless."

"I'm more fixated on the faith of others," she said. "I see it as an admirable trait to be able to believe."

A Bible big enough for a televangelist bakes on the dash. (It's an edition issued by fallen preacher Jim Bakker.) An angel figurine perches on the rear bumper. (It wards off unscrupulous mechanics.)

Until a wild night at Mons Venus, a Jesus statue graced the front bumper. But that's another story.

Kitchens' fans wouldn't be surprised.

In "Best Places to Find Bad Men," a Weekly Planet classic, she visits a strip joint, a biker bar and South Tampa restaurants rumored to be Mafia magnets. She takes out two ads, one to find a sensitive man with a passion for sunsets, the other with "something XXX-tra down south."

The first generated little response. The second opened a floodgate of nice guys.

"If you write a nasty ad, you get flowers and steaks," Kitchens says. "God knows why. It's true."

In Roadkill Boyfriend, her short story, the protagonist sideswipes a man who spurned her advances. In the back seat, she rapes him repeatedly before he dies.

It's not what you think, Kitchens says.

The story was inspired by the teenaged daughter of an ex-boyfriend, a sad girl caught between feuding parents.

"I was looking at this kid and wondering what in the world is going to happen to her, snatched back and forth between these two people," Kitchens says. "There's no way she's ever going to understand love, like basic, no-nonsense, give-and-take acceptance."

Most people don't get it.

"They think I want to go kill someone or I have and I haven't been caught yet," she says.

She laughs. She whispers: "It's fiction. It's fiction."

* * *

In a Web site bio, Kitchens describes herself as "a devoted disciple of Oscar Wilde's excesses."

"Very, very promiscuous with literature," the Web site says. "The last book she slept with was The Corpse: The History."

The real-life Rhonda isn't as intimidating (at least not in a short interview, in a deli, with other people around and a half-eaten chocolate chip cookie in front of her).

She laughs a lot. She jokes about her wavy hair, shoulder-length and semi-wild. After a recent trip to West Palm Beach, sun and chlorine left a swirl of black, orange and blond.

"Distinctly candy corn," she calls it.

In Plant City, Kitchens remembers Confederate flags and "a lot of Bocephus," the nickname given to country singer Hank Williams Jr., the patron saint of unrepentant rednecks.

Not the most nurturing place for a hard-core bookworm.

"I spent my whole life running away," she says.

She graduated from Florida Southern College with a degree in advertising. After stints with three ad agencies in two years, she moved to shoes, managing chain stores in a half-dozen cities.

She later earned a master's degree in library science from the University of South Florida and got a job with the library system in New York City.

There, her writing blossomed.

Kitchens always kept personal journals but didn't stop throwing them away until she spoke in public at "Books to Remember," an annual event in New York that celebrates the best books of the year.

Kitchens approached the microphone, scared and sedated on Dramamine. She had written in praise of Red Azalea, the 1995 autobiography of a woman in Communist China.

As words tumbled out, fear faded, replaced by a sweet high.

"I swear I heard (my voice) hit the back of the wall and come back at me," Kitchens says. "And I could hear people, when I hit a certain part, just go . . ." She makes the sound of people gasping, a sound that agreed with her.

"You're like, 'I like this.' "

* * *

When she got back to Tampa five years ago, Kitchens started Poetry in the Dark to give other aspiring writers the same rush.

She pulled the plug two years ago to concentrate on her writing.

It's not all sex and Satan.

"She makes mundane things seem fantastic," said friend and admirer Kris Pierce, also a writer.

One recent Planet piece focused on the spiritual diversity of Tampa Bay churches. Another looks at the Cuban music experience at Pipo's on Davis Islands.

The scene was warm, intimate, maybe even small-townish.

Kitchens noted an 11-year-old girl dancing with dad and a 70-year-old man busting a move with a woman half his age.

Kitchens longed to share the dance floor, but even a steady stream of mojitos couldn't get her there.

In real life, she is inching closer to Plant City.

She says she appreciates it more as she gets older. She sees complexities now, maybe even virtues. "It took distance to see it," she says.

Years from now, she may even move back.

She sees herself downtown, in an old house. The old house, of course, is next to the cemetery.

In the meantime, she has her next Planet story to shepherd: Exploring life as a cross-dresser.

-- Staff writer Ron Matus can be reached at 226-3405 or matus@sptimes.com.

CITY PEOPLE

Rhonda Kitchens

  • AGE: 38
  • JOB: Librarian
  • PASSION: Writing
  • HOME: Davis Islands
  • MARITAL STATUS: "Terminally and professionally single"
  • PAST GIGS: pizza taste tester, boat show model, clerk at Priscilla's
  • FAVORITE WRITER: Novelist Martin Amis
  • FAVORITE SPOT: Tate Brothers Pizza
  • FAVORITE ORDER: Extra hot chicken wings
  • MUSICAL TASTE: German industrial, Lebanese disco
  • SELF DEFINITION: Curious, sincere, average

City Times: The rest of the stories

  • Fishing is about the wait
  • Village struggles to remain optimistic
  • Understanding RhondaK
  • Costumes for a cause
  • Spain moves uptown, Prana aims at stars
  • He was an inspiration in dentistry, community
  • Sugar baron got start in Tampa
  • Taking in Tori's new tunes
  • Tiny insect sucking all life out of sago palms
  • Some listen to 'left field' idea
  • Walk-a-thon raises cash as well as awareness
  • Neighborhood Notebook
  • A touch of Paris on Kennedy Boulevard?
  • County traffic office moves for the public
  • Old landfill may open as public golf course
  • 1,600 homes coming
  • Rewarding work on the weekend
  • Bargain hunters lap up luxury at outlet store
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