Peter Orlovsky was born in 1933 to Oleg Orlovsky, a Russian immigrant, and his wife Katherine (née Schwarten), an aspiring writer, on Manhattan's Lower Eastside. He grew up in precarious circumstances in Northport on Long Island. The family had many children but was poor, and his childhood was marked by neglect and social decline. Some of his four siblings were seriously mentally ill and addicted to drugs, and he also struggled with alcohol and hard drugs throughout his life. To earn extra money, he worked early on as an orderly in a Queens psychiatric hospital, cramming for his high school diploma during night shifts. During the Korean War, he was a medic in San Francisco and there, in 1954, he met Allen Ginsberg, who immediately fell in love with Orlovsky. The two lived in an open relationship until Ginsberg's death in 1997, mostly in New York; extensive travel took them to Europe and North Africa as far as India and Pakistan. Ginsberg encouraged Orlovsky to write poetry in 1957, when they were living in Paris. First published in 1960 in the authoritative anthology The New American Poetry 1945-1960, he persisted in writing until he was able to publish Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs, his most important volume, with City Lights Books in San Francisco in 1978.
Beginning in 1970, Orlovsky tried farming for a few years on a farm Allen Ginsberg had bought in upstate New York, devoting himself to organic farming, communal living, and writing. Four years later, he joined the faculty of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, offering, among other things, a course called "Poetry for Stupid Students." For several years he remained one of its key members, teaching young people how to read and write poetry. In 1979 he received a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.
He is the author of several books of poetry, including Dear Allen: Ship Will Land Jan 23, 58 (1971), Lepers Cry (1972), Clean Asshole Poems & Smiling Vegetable Songs (1978), and Straight Heart's Delight: Love Poems and Selected Letters (with Allen Ginsberg) (1980). In addition, he was active as a singer and actor, including in 'Renaldo and Clara' (1978), 'Chappaqua' (1966) and 'Me and My Brother' (1969).
On May 30, 2010, Peter Orlovsky died of lung cancer diagnosed only a few months earlier.