Peter Orlovsky was born in New York City in 1933 to a family of Russian immigrants. He dropped out of high school in his senior year to help support his financially troubled family. In 1954 he met Allen Ginsberg while working as a model for the painter Robert La Vigne in San Francisco. Their 44-year relationship ended with Allen’s death in 1997.
Peter began writing poetry in 1957 while living with Allen in Paris. Although he never regarded writing as a career, Orlovsky joined the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado in 1974, where he taught a course called “Poetry for Dumb Students.” In 1979, he received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue his writing.
Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg met Trungpa Rinpoche briefly in 1962 while traveling in India (see photo on sidebar). Allen connected with Chögyam Trungpa again in New York City in 1970, while hailing a taxi. The Chronicles will post an audio clip of Peter Orlovsky telling the story of that meeting on July 18, 2010, forty-nine days after his passing. Peter attended Vajradhatu seminary in Lake Louise, Alberta in 1982, and continued to be a close and much loved member of Trungpa Rinpoche’s community.
For most of the years since Allen’s death, Peter lived in Saint Johnsbury, Vermont. In late May 2010, he was moved to the Vermont Respite House in Williston where he died peacefully on May 30th.
From Rachel Faro
I had a date with Peter once in the 1970’s. I wasn’t sure because I thought he was Allan’s husband but it seems that there was another side to Peter. We went to Denver to a Tubes concert: I was friends with the band, which was one of the most original bands ever. After the concert he met all the members of the band and then when we were heading back to Denver Peter was quite direct: were we going to sleep together or not that night I wasn’t really attracted to him physically and I was also surprised because I didn’t even know that he was into women! But I think he really very much was. I think he was basically straight but had this amazing connection with Allan. Anyway, we did have a great time hanging out. One of the great things about Peter was that he was so real, so honest.
From Tal Varon
I’d like to share some anecdotal memories of Peter Orlovski.
I attended a dathun at Karme Choling in 2002 that had in it an arts component. The first half was directed by Arawana Hayashi, who led us through movement workshops every other day, and the second half by Bill Scheffel, who led us through writing workshops every other day.
This was my first long program in Shambhala. At the opening session, we were told about the structure of the retreat and we all introduced ourselves. Some participants were dancers who seemed excited about combining meditation with movement. The general tone from everyone was excitement (perhaps covering anxiety, at least in my case, about the prospect of sitting a dathun!) about combining meditation and artistic activity. The last one to say hello among the participants was Peter, who I didn’t know. In sharp contrast to the general smiley atmosphere, he said in a straight face and raspy voice that he was Peter and doesn’t intend to move at all but rather try to sit still as much as he can. Arawana warmly welcomed him with a smile, saying something like “OK, Peter”. I felt like she must have known him well, because she said it like an old friend, with no judgment at all.
I ended up sitting right next to Peter, in the front row. He indeed tried to attend as many sessions as he could, but he missed many of them. Later, when I got a chance to talk to him he told me that he had trouble sitting for long periods of time, and he somehow related this to his getting off alcohol. He often went out to the front porch to smoke, and that’s where I got to chat with him a few times.
So I never saw Peter at the movement workshops… However, during the second half of the dathun, as I mentioned, Bill Scheffel led us in writing workshops. We were split into two groups, according to our seat in the meditation hall. And so, since we sat next to each other, I ended up sitting in a writing workshop with Peter(!). At this point, typically (I’m always the last to pick up on who’s who, who’s dating who, etc), I still didn’t know who he was, but I finally started to get it when Bill started prompting him to tell us stories from his associations with all the many writers in his life. Peter became somewhat of a celebrity in our group, or at least so I percieved.
When it came to the actual writing exercises, Peter provided some memorable moments. The first time Bill asked him about writing poetry, Peter said that at that point in his life, he had bits of ideas come up in his mind all the time, but felt no reason to write them down. For example, he told us enthusiastically (I think he enjoyed our fixed attention), that the other day he suddenly had a realization that Allen Ginsberg looked just like Yasser Arafat. He was really excited about this observation. We were all laughing and having a great time, enjoying his charm and genuineness.
Another time, we were given the assignment to write about a body of water, whatever that meant to us. When we started, Peter, as he often did, went outside to smoke while we very seriously went about writing as best we could. By the time he got back we were all done and sharing our material. Everyone who wanted to, read their piece, and there was the familiar feeling of being exposed and closer (and at least in my case, comparing and ranking myself against the others!). Finally, after everyone had read, Bill asked Peter if he wanted to offer anything (the theme, as mentioned, was bodies of water). After a short silence, Peter belted out something like, “I like cold showers! They’re refreshing!”. Again, we were all laughing, disarmed by his simple, lighthearted and authentic way of being.
At another writing session, the theme was a place, a location. I picked the twelve steps at the entrance to my parents’ house and wrote about that. After the session, walking past Peter, I overheard him say to someone that he enjoyed my piece. I was so proud of myself, I still can’t get over it.
At the final banquet, I found myself sitting, yet again, next to Peter, still on cushions but this time behind practice tables transformed into elegant dinner tables. During the never-ending offerings section (remember, this was the Arts Dathun, and we all HAD to perform), I played an improvisation on my soprano sax, sitting on a cushion in front of everyone. When I got back to my seat, Peter told me that this was a “rhapsody in meditation”. This time I didn’t get so full of pride by his remark. I felt it more like a light and friendly gesture.
The next day was departure day and I saw Peter again walking around. I was leaving late, and he was staying on at Karme Choling, as long as he could afford it, he told me. I asked him whether he was an MI in New York, and he said he couldn’t be because he couldn’t keep up two hours of practice a day, which he said MIs were required to do.
A few months later, I was preparing for my senior recital at the New School University. For a while, I was playing with the idea of asking Peter to read some poetry at the recital, with my friends and me playing our free-style jazz improvisations around him. But I hadn’t seen him in months, didn’t even know whether or not he was in town, and didn’t feel comfortable imposing myself on him. It felt like I would be using him as a gimmick, anyway.
I saw Peter very few times after the dathun. But some of us at the New York center would mention him once in a while. One idea that a friend of mine told me, in joking, but with a core of truth to it, was that we should establish the Peter Orlovski Award for Authentic Presence (not necessarily used here in the full Shambhalian meaning of the term). And I think that’s what I mostly remember about Peter–his genuineness.
From Robert Lovitt
i worked as a poetry apprentice to allen g. at naropa in 1980. at that time, peter was the kind host in their small boulder home, making me tea, quizzing me about this and that while i waited timidly for allen to appear. later on i lived at k-c and there was peter a few bunk beds away in the boy’s dorm. may there be banjos in heaven! robert lovitt, olympia, wa
boy’s dorm (for peter o.)
for all the guys who’ve lived like this
stacked in bunk beds, in dormitories
rooms of rectangles, in barracks, forest service trailers
how do we do it – ey
no privacy of yawn! the hot breath burpers!
in monasteries on kibbutzim
up at the blowing of an early conch shell
lights out to the “p.a.’s” tape of taps – how do we live like this
with adornments of two favorite books and
scotch-taped-up-on-the-wall pictures of girlfriends
a duffle bag at the foot of thin mattress
if lucky – a trunk
the all night rolling fart fog!
the moaners dreaming twitching garbling love’s names
into their pillows no light – no space
the smell – that blend of soaked t-shirts, wool socks and dried come
all you guys who’ve seen a skinny kid from paris
on the bunk below – thin blue pajamas and picking his nose
with vacant look
how can we live like this
the muffled rhythmic stirrings and creakings
that crescendo and stop dead
in ear-ringing embarrassment and relief!
who left their nail clippings on the tiled floor
my god i yearn for sweet bedroom – quiet quilted comfort
sheets, not this metal zippered sleeping bag, maybe a night table
a window to stand and stretch in front of, even with a morning erection!
what luxuries we give up for these adventures of zen and cowpoke
listening to peter snore
sunlight reaches through
the basement’s window…
Father Death Blues
By Allen Ginsberg
Hey Father Death, I’m flying home
Hey poor man, you’re all alone
Hey old daddy, I know where I’m going
Father Death, Don’t cry any more
Mama’s there, underneath the floor
Brother Death, please mind the store
Old Aunty Death Don’t hide your bones
Old Uncle Death I hear your groans
O Sister Death how sweet your moans
O Children Deaths go breathe your breaths
Sobbing breasts’ll ease your Deaths
Pain is gone, tears take the rest
Genius Death your art is done
Lover Death your body’s gone
Father Death I’m coming home
Guru Death your words are true
Teacher Death I do thank you
For inspiring me to sing this Blues
Buddha Death, I wake with you
Dharma Death, your mind is new
Sangha Death, we’ll work it through
Suffering is what was born
Ignorance made me forlorn
Tearful truths I cannot scorn
Father Breath once more farewell
Birth you gave was no thing ill
My heart is still, as time will tell.
From Suzanne Duarte
One of the early, endearing stories I heard about Peter was that in New Yok City – perhaps the Lower East Side – he used to go around cleaning up the streets, disposing of litter and garbage. I got the impression, perhaps from Allen, that Peter was into cleaning up after others and keeping things clean. I thought it might be a form of kriya yoga in service to the world. I remember him fondly as possessing a selfless humility.
Allen and Peter attended my first Seminary in 1976 at Land o’ Lakes, Wisconsin. Allen taught a poetry class that I took, and Peter also attended it. (You can see them a little to the left of the center of this 1976 Seminary photo, both wearing suits like most of the other men.)
I have sometimes wondered what happened to Peter after Allen died, so I am glad to know that he stayed close to Karme-Choling and sangha, and that he died with loving friends attending to him. I always had a big, warm, soft spot in my heart for Peter.
From Chris Keyser
What perfect poetic symmetry for Peter to exit this world last Sunday on the anniversary of Patrul Rinpoche’s parinirvana. Two rebels who perennially challenged the prevailing conventions and dogma of their times. How sweet for Peter to be serenaded by a peaceful dakini, Judy Lief, and a wrathful dakini, Anne Waldman, at his bedside, protecting his mindstream as he took his last breath and entered the bardo. Bon Voyage, dear dharma brother.
From Jonathan Shailor
I had the opportunity to meet Peter during a dathun at Karme Choling in January 2001
In the kitchen, preparing a feast
Peter outside looking in
Rings of tobacco smoke encircling his devilish grin
In the main shrine room, a discussion led by Jules Levinson
We watched Peter as he worked to assemble a comfortable seat:
One gomden, two gomdens, a support cushion…
A third gomden…
Peter tottered, then fell
Jules: Did you hit your head
Peter: Nah, I hit my BALLS.
Jules: Do you feel all right
Peter: Felt GOOD!
Chanting the Heart Sutra
Voice like gravel racing down the hillside
Farewell, Peter. Thank you for your vivid presence!
Listen to these selected poems by Peter Orlovsky
Orlovsky’s poetry has been published in Dear Allen: Ship will land Jan 23, 58 (1971), Lepers Cry (1972), Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs: Poems 1957-1977 (1978), and Straight Hearts’ Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters (1980), a collaboration with Ginsberg. His work has also appeared in New American Poetry: 1945-1960 (1960), The Beatitude Anthology (1965), as well as the literary magazines Yugen and Outsider. Orlovsky has appeared in two films, Andy Warhol’s Couch (1965) and photographer Robert Frank’s Me and My Brother (1969), a film documenting Julius Orlovsky’s mental illness.