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Dim Lighting, Bright Minds: Hidden Palace at Fadensonnen

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Illuminated by candlelight and warm overhead fixtures, Fadensonnen’s upstairs tavern generates the kind of setting where time moves at an idiosyncratic pace and where the murmur of conversations don’t echo. On a packed evening, the pitter patter of talk is nourished by the room’s wooden tables and seats. It gets rather dark by nightfall, dim enough that reading from the menu sometimes requires the aid of phone light. Even with this obstacle in the cards, it is no wonder that Ashleigh Bryant Phillips and Joseph Grantham started Hidden Palace—a reading series for poetry and fiction—in this locale. 

Though I have only attended a handful of the twenty Hidden Palace nights to date, they all seem to begin in similar fashion. Phillips or Grantham (or the both of them together) shimmy over to the microphone from a table in the corner of the room closest to the tavern’s entrance, where Emily Miller of Greedy Reads sells books written by the evening’s invitees.

This table is also where the four authors slated to read often hang out and chat with each other, friends, family, and audience members before the readings get started. Everyone gathered in the room for the night can anticipate an introduction is on the way. Phillips or Grantham clear their throat; both have the wonderful gift of bringing smiles to the faces of those watching them without having to do or say much. Then, quietness sets in and all you hear if anything at all is the gentle clanks of bartenders serving up delectable cocktails, wines, and sakes.

 

Photo by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
It is always so powerful to hear from emerging writers who are giving it everything they got.
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

Phillips and Grantham are authors themselves, and their passion and admiration for the writers they invite to read is infectious. Phillips grew up in rural North Carolina and has written dozens of short stories and essays. Her debut collection, Sleepovers, is the winner of the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize, selected by Lauren Groff. It was published in 2020. Nowadays she splits her time between Baltimore and Boone, North Carolina where she’s a Visiting Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Appalachian State University.

Grantham grew up in the Bay Area. He has lived in Baltimore since 2019, working at various bookstores and writing heaps. He is the author of two books of poetry, Tom Sawyer (2018) and Raking Leaves (2019) and has also published several short stories and poems online and in print.

Phillips and Grantham moved to Baltimore in 2019 shortly after Phillips won the C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize and Grantham interviewed the late American fiction writer, Stephen Dixon, in his Ruxton, Maryland home for the Creative Independent. Much like this path that first brought Phillips and Grantham to Baltimore, Hidden Palace came about organically. To provide some context, Phillips explains over email, “Back in 2017, I helped curate and host a reading series in grad school at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington. That series was free and open to the public,” and it really was frequented by the public. “You’d see the folks you waited tables with, the barista at the local coffee shop, the elderly couple you dog-sat for,” she writes. 

Phillips missed these gatherings after having made the move to Baltimore in 2019. But it wasn’t until early 2022, when she was encouraged by Lane Harlanthe proprietor of the natural wine and sake shop where Phillips workedthat Hidden Palace came to fruition. In fact, the name Hidden Palace is an homage to Harlan’s store, Angels Ate Lemons, referencing a line from a book regularly on display at the time called Angels & Saints by Eliot Weinberger.

Poster by Savannah Patts
Poster by Maria Canzano

Speaking to how the reading series gathered momentum in the last year and a half—an impetus to become a monthly happening—Grantham writes, “Phillips and I are good at communicating.” This communication is necessary for the organizational side of the operation. In terms of the readings themselves, however, Grantham notes simply but essentially that he and Phillips keep getting authors to read who they are interested in.

“There’s never any filler,” he adds. From a practical and inertia standpoint, both Phillips and Grantham emphasize how important the folks at Fadensonnen and Greedy Reads are in making the operation run smoothly. From ordering books to setting up sound equipment to staffing and stocking the bar, everyone’s enthusiasm for Hidden Palace is tangible. 

At the beginning, Phillips and Grantham didn’t know if Baltimore wanted another reading series. But they have been delighted by Hidden Palace’s warm reception and its growing crowd of regulars. “There’s a genuine curiosity in a lot of people I meet here that feels unique to Baltimore,” writes Grantham. That the series attracts readers even more than it does authors hoping to network and schmooze (while enjoying the work of their peers) has been more apparent to Grantham in Baltimore than in other cities he’s lived and organized readings in.

 

Photo by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips
Photo by Ashleigh Bryant Phillips

This sentiment harkens back to the reading series timbre Phillips writes about having missed back in Wilmington, North Carolina. “It didn’t matter if you could ‘write’ or who you had read,” Phillips reminisces. Although Hidden Palace isn’t an open-mic function, it carries with it the same kind of verve and boundlessness that open-mic readings are imbued with. 

There is this grounded form of timelessness I have noticed myself latching onto in the Fadensonnen tavern on Hidden Palace evenings, one that I don’t quite know how to describe in words even though words are what these evenings revolve around. In our email exchange, Phillips and Grantham recounted so many favorite Hidden Palace moments that it would be a disservice to underscore just one. But in terms of the effervescence—the frisson—these moments have produced, Phillips writes of the “collective sigh” stories and poems paint the room with.

“It is always so powerful to hear from emerging writers who are giving it EVERYTHING they got,” she reflects. 

“To look at the crowd of people hanging on every word, ready to laugh, ready to cry, that gets me choked up too,” writes Grantham. This emotional proximity bound up in stories and poems close to the heart or off flying high in faraway realms is what makes Hidden Palace such a special event. These evenings effuse the spirit of the local reading series, which—as Phillips frames it—is at its core “more likely to be led by love and less likely to be led by pretension.”

Hidden Palace returns to Fadensonnen’s tavern on Wednesday, December 6 at 7:00pm. It’s easy to remember when the reading series comes around, as it convenes on the first Wednesday of every month. December’s lineup includes two musicians who have dived into poetry, Devon Welsh of “Majical Cloudz” and Vishal Narang of “Airhead D.C.” The other two readers will be Athena Dixon, author of a book of autobiographical essays titled The Loneliness Files (2023), and fiction writer Victoria Lancelotta, author of a book of stories called Ways to Disappear (2023)

Baltimore can be bone-chilling come December, be it from the weather turning conclusively away from balminess or from the exhaustion of work hours feeling longer than usual. But if you find yourself chilly and without a plan on the first Wednesday evening of the month, the amity and coziness of Hidden Palace will be sure to have a warming effect. A hot Fadensonnen sake might just help too.

You can follow all Hidden Palace updates here on their Instagram page.

 

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